by Alex Johnson
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The Colliery owners were keen to keep their workforce happy to ensure regular attendance. To assist in this direction they built a reading room, with a library of 130 books in 1858. One must remember, that in those days, books were at a premium and very few people owned books, so a library of 130 books was a great treat for those who could read.
In 1860 a meeting was held in this room and it was crowded. To muster the people, The Tyne and Derwent Rifle Corps (Volunteers) paraded through the village. About 100 people attended the meeting and tea, was served. Afterwards Mr. Joseph Hardy, a Blaydon school master addressed the meeting. He was a prominent figure in all local affairs and he urged the people to send their children to school. He maintained that children from 5 years old to 11 years should be taught the 3 "Rs", reading (w)riting and (a)rithmetic, other subjects being of minor importance. (I agree with his sentiments, but unfortunately many educationists today cannot see the wisdom of this).
In about 1898 the Reading Room became an Institute, paid for by a levy of one penny on each miner per week. The Institute consisted of a library, reading room and billiard room. Adjoining the Institute was the Park, also paid for and maintained by the miners out of the levy.
The Park had a tennis court and bowling green and just above these was the bandstand. The stage was up off the ground, and under it was storage space for the bowls. The Park was well-used by the men, children were only allowed in with adults. In the Summer, on Sundays High Spen Colliery Band would play on the bandstand and the Park would be crowded with people, sitting around enjoying the music. Afterwards they would stroll away, many going for a walk, across the burn, up towards Brass Castle over to Coalburns and back to the Spen via Greenside Road.
Years later I learnt my tennis on this court, playing with Jim Withrington, brother Bob and Arthur Tidman, and with any young person who wanted to play.
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The popular songs of those days were mainly from films or from the vocalists of the big bands such as Henry Hall, Roy Fox and Ambrose, not forgetting the love songs of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.
In the late 20s and early 30s most houses in High Spen had crystal sets so listening was limited to one pair of headphones. We were no exception but when we moved to East Street we bought a new 5 valve Murphy wireless so we listened to Radio Athlone and Luxemburg whenever we could.
My favourite was Bing Crosby but Al Bowly was a close second. It was at this time that I managed to buy a second-hand guitar and took lessons at Madame Hutchinsons. My pals were Jim Withrington and Billy Sproats who played the piano and banjo respectively and cousin Jean Dodds played the accordian so we spent many an evening at 5, Ward Avenue, Highfield or 5, East Street churning out what must have been a cacophony of sound.
At Barlow we couldn't afford a bike but at High Spen Father bought me a 2 speed bike. It was a roadster and very heavy so I had great difficulty keeping up with Jim Withrington. However my brother Robert was bought a Raleigh Sports Model, but as he didn't cycle very much I exchanged it for mine and so I cycled all over the country, including Scotland. The three of us, Jim, Bill and I cycled together, till Jim's Auntie bought him a Rudge Motorcycle, costing £29.00. I couldn't keep up with them so I became a lone rider.
I had other friends of course including a very nice young chap called Charlie Kidd, and another from Ramsey Street called Terry Bradley. Terry played football for Byermoor Roman Catholic Sports Club and as I was a useful player he asked me to play for them. I agreed with a certain reluctance for I was not a Roman Catholic but once there, they were so kind to me. On our away games they all sang rebel Irish songs and I used to wonder what would have happened to me had they known that I was not a "left-footer" (R.C.) I also played for Greenside Rovers and won a cup medal with them. They presented the medals at a Football Dance in the Greenside Welfare Hall. It was a long night for me - I couldn't dance at that time and I was too shy to speak to strange girls, so I was pleased when I received my medal so I could rush out. I remember a new song they played that night, it was "The daring young man on the flying trapeze".
Dances were held also in the Low Spen Welfare Hall. It had a marvellous sprung floor and young people walked miles to attend these dances. Keen dancers used to walk to Byermoor to attend Sunday night dances in the R.C. Church there. Many people from the Spen will remember them.
Mrs. Annie Bessford began a bus service which was taken over by the Venture Co. but she also had taxis and hearses. She organised funerals many, many years before the Co-operative began. At first she had the horse drawn hearse. These were drawn by black horses which wore a black cape and each horse had a black plume on its head. The hearse was a long glass box on wheels. Funerals were great occasions. Every one became a mourner, whether a relative or a friend and wore dark clothing. They lined up behind the coffin and walked to the Churchyard at St.Patrick's. Each funeral was followed by a funeral feast, and feast it was, for no expense was spared, it was a matter of honour. It was also a custom that when the cortege, was on the way to the Church, passers-by stood to attention and doffed their hats as a mark of respect
Weddings too were special occasions when families spent their hard-earned money to give a good "send-off" to the lucky people. Children gathered round the bridal cars Shouting "Hoy Oot!" till the Best Man, already prepared with a pocket full of coins, threw them on to the road where the children fought for them.
Illnesses were not so common in the late 30s as they were in the 20s and early 30s but many children were still sent to Isolation Wards with Scarlet Fever and Diptheria. The Barlow children were sent to Normans Riding while the Spen children went to Sealburns Hospital which was situated half way between Greenside and Coalburns. A stay was six weeks long and often resulted in death. The other children didn't mind an epidemic for it meant a holiday while the school was fumigated.
Families in my youth were never lucky enough to go away for a holiday - I doubt if most of the men would have accepted a free holiday away from home; to them a week's holiday was a perpetual visitation to the various clubs. A day at the seaside was a great treat and for some children the Annual School Trip and Chapel Trip were wonderful days.
Many children Joined the Gloops Club. Gloops was a cartoon cat in the Evening World, a Newcastle paper. He was always getting into mischief but always came out smiling. The editor of the paper realised how popular he was with children and started a Gloops Club. Every entrant received a membership card and a card on his birthday. He or she also wore a Gloops badge and had to wear a smile to match the cat. If you passed your 11+ for Grammar School or did a worth-while deed, you received a medal. I still have mine!!
Money was scarce, so children were always ready to earn a copper or two. In the 1920s a boy could always earn a penny by holding a horse's head while the passenger alighted or did her shopping. I remember earning a whole sixpence (six weeks pocket money) by driving a gentleman home after an afternoon in the local hostelry. He came out of the Bute Arms in a sorry state. I helped him into his trap but he couldn't hold the reins so, having ascertained his address I drove him to Rowlands Gill. Having deposited him at his house in Smailes Lane his wife gave me 6d. I ran all the way back home.
Another way to earn an honest shilling was to pick potatoes. This was a back-breaking job. If you were under eleven you received a shilling a day, if over eleven you received two shillings a day, plus a pail of potatoes. You had to take your own pails! These extra pennies were welcome at home where Father's pay was in the region of 6s.6d a day to keep a wife and large family.
Winter evenings were spent at home, listening to the wireless, children playing board games such as Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, dominoes and cards. Mothers and older daughters spent their evenings making mats, hookey or groggy. Old clothes were kept for this purpose. They were cut up and dyed to make clippings. A canvas would be bought at the Co-op Store or made from two sacks. A design would be drawn on it, the canvas stitched to a frame and work would begin. The hookey clippings would be long, and hooked through a hole made by a sharp instrument with a small hook on the end. The proggy clippings would be short and were just pushed through and back. Many a Winter's evening was spent, when the wind was howling outside, and a huge coal fire was blazing in the hearth, making mats. On reflection, I think that those evenings were wonderful times, for they gave a certain intimacy to family life: something missing today.
In my book on Barlow I went into detail describing Wash Day. I cannot however, miss it out completely, for it was a day loathed by the whole family. Poor Mother was up early on the Monday morning, filling up her boiler to begin the long day. It was sheer drudgery and hard work. There were no electric washers in those days, only poss-tubs. These were large wooden barrels which were filled with hot water, clothes were dropped in and Mother thumped the clothes with a heavy wooden instrument. Every Monday one could hear the "Thump-Thump" of the poss sticks echoing around the village. Children hated washdays for the houses were full or steam. Lunch was "cold warmed up" which was the remnants of Sunday lunch put into a large iron frying pan and fried. Father, coming home from the pit, also disliked it, for he had to walk carefully to avoid the hanging washing, especially when it had to be dried inside. Lines of clothing were hung across the back lane, Hawkers, with their horses and carts dare not venture down the lane on a Monday, for fear of incurring the wrath of the irate housewife who had spent hours washing only to see it dirtied by some horse's head.
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The children of High Spen, and there were plenty of them, for families were large in those days had a great time out of school. The back streets were ideal playgrounds for the smaller children and for the less bold, while for the older children there was the football field, Miller's Wood, Chopwell Wood, the quarry above West Street, the Recreation Field beside the Field Club, the Bark Wood and Barlow Burn.
In the woods, the boys (and the odd girl) climbed trees and jeered at those who were not so brave. Bows and arrows were popular, made with holly, hazel, alder or ash and cut with the knife which most boys carried in their large and usually full pockets. It was a rare boy that couldn't produce string, marbles, cigarette card, a sticky toffee and a knife from his breeches pocket.
The woods were ideal too, for playing Hide and Seek and here one learnt what was edible and what was poisonous. Chopwell Woods was a veritable paradise, for it had paths galore and was ideal for exploring. One caught sight of rabbits, weasels, stoats and deer on the way down to the River Derwent. The river here makes its way onwards, past mossy banks and reed-skirted haughs coming at last to a wild and rocky ravine. Here, on each side of the stream, the walls of the ravine were almost perpendicular and the water deepened, then it emerged into a wide pool where the boys could bathe. Low Crags will be well remembered by High Spen boys. Many learnt to swim here on a fine Summer's day. Some in the nude, others with a handkerchief tied around them to hide their modesty! The reeds were used to make whips and rattles, a country skill, alas! which is lost forever!! Ash twigs were cunningly made into whistles. Older boys whittled away at sticks - carving their initials and designs in the bark.
The back streets were full of children, the pavement chalked for hop-scotch (Bays). Chalk was easy to come by - every Mother had a big piece of chalk to whiten the surrounds Of her steps. "Bays" were popular with both boys and girls and from ordinary hopping they progressed to "Hitchy Dabber" which was quite a skill in itself. Most children carried, their own dabber with them, usually a piece of slate!
On odd bits of land boys could be seen playing the very old game of Tip Cat (explained in the book on Barlow).
Probably the most well-used or all apparatus however was the "gord". This was a hoop of ¼" round steel propelled by a hook of the same material. These were made by the village blacksmith (or the colliery blacksmith) and were the pride and joy of every boy. Boys ran miles with their gords and were very upset when the joint sprang apart. However the consolation was that it meant a visit to the village smithy where the boy could stand and watch, with big eyes, the forge roaring, showering sparks all around - with a bit of luck the smithy might ask the boy to blow the bellows - a great treat!
The girls sneered at the gords - they preferred to play "houses". They collected bricks, stones, wood etc. to make the perimeter of the house, leaving spaces for doors and windows. They borrowed bits of matting and stools and they became housewives. Tin lids made cooking utensils and mud the dough. Many an hour was spent - preparing the meal for the husband and putting the bairns to bed - their dolls of course!!
The girls played with sponge balls or used tennis balls against a wall! The back of the outside toilets and coalhouse were ideal for "two balker" - a game which the girls played with speed and dexterity; beating the boys every time, much to their chagrin. Skipping too was the girls domain. They skipped singly, doubles and in groups happily chanting ditties which had been passed on for generations. Some children had no ropes - they cost money, so they followed the fruiterer's cart and begged for the green rope which was fastened around the banana crates.
Tops and whips were used by both sexes. The tops were marked with coloured chalk to enhance the joy of watching.
Marbles were in great demand. They were so cheap, being made of clay and coloured and so were easily broken. The games were varied. There was "Powley Up". "Blobbie", "Shooty Ring" and "Penky Folla". The latter was played on the way to school and many dirty knuckles entered school - no doubt "Ganny" Hind cleaned them up with the strap:!
In the Summer kites were made with newspaper or brown paper and bits of fruit boxes. Flour paste stuck the kites together and two-pennorth of kite string finished off the job. The pit heap and Bone Hill were the best places to fly them but the football field was put to good use too.
Kick the Block was a popular game in the back streets, the back yards being ideal hiding places - some adults thought otherwise!!!
The big boys played "Monty-Kitty", an advancement on Leap Frog and it was always a source of amazement that no backs were broken. The name is thought to be a derivation of "Mount the Cuddy". Cuddy is a North Country word for donkey. St. Cuthbert was named Cuddy and as he always rode on a donkey - the donkey appropriated the name Cuddy too!
The streets were ideal locations for communal games - they provided the location and the children, and so school games such as "The Big Ship Sails through the Alley-Alley Oh", "Here we go gathering nuts in May", "Bobby-Bobby Bingo", "Ring-a-ring of Roses", "I wrote a letter to my Love" and many others were played at street corners and under street lights.
Cigarette cards were widely collected, every discarded cigarette packet was investigated for cards. Boys played "Knockydown Police" or "Putty-on", two games where one flicked cigarette cards so that they covered others or knocked down a standing card. Some cards were collected and the set could be exchanged for a large picture. Many are still hanging in houses in the village.
Another popular game was Queenie. It was a simple game to play, so young children were allowed to play with their elders. A Child with a ball stood with her back to a row of children. She then threw the ball over her head to the Children. One child would get it and hide it behind her back. All the row would stand innocently with their hands also behind them. When the ball was safely hidden, the row of children would chant;
"Queenie, Queenie, who's got the ball?
I haven't got it. It is'nt in my pocket,
Queenie, Queenie, who's got the ball?"
The girl in front would then turn around, examine each face and choose a child or go along chanting,
"Eeny, meeny, miney moe,
Catch a n..... by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miney moe".
Pointing at each child in turn she would end by pointing to her choice. If the choice was wrong the girl who had the ball would go to the front and the game resumed. Sometimes a little one would get excited and blurt out the answer.
"Chucks" was also played. Usually as we sat around on a hot Summer's day (yes, we had lots in those days). Five small stones were selected, thrown up and caught on the back of the hand. Any falling to the ground had to be picked up carefully, keeping the stones on the back of the hand and dropped into the other hand. The stones on the back were then thrown into the air and all caught with that hand. If a stone dropped the opponent took his turn.
Children played quite happily together in games needing no equipment. Such was "Statues" one child stood about twenty yards in front of a line of children. He looked ahead and turning swiftly tried to catch someone moving. If he did they had to go back to the line and start again. The object was to get close enough to touch the leader without being spotted. He who succeeded then became the leader.
Music in our games was provided by mouth organs; Kazoos, sometimes called Submarines as they were shaped in this manner, or bones (knackers). Combs and tissue-paper made a cheap kazoo. We all played kazoos but not everyone could master the mouth organ or the bones. To play, these two bones were held in one hand with one or two fingers between them. By flicking the wrist a recognisable rhythm could be produced.
Yo-yos were popular and some boys were expert at diablo, a game which necessitates balancing and rolling an object like a double egg_cup on a string between two sticks.
In the Summer most boys had a burning glass, the top end of a torch would do, and using the rays of the sun would burn a hole in some unsuspecting child's clothing. Fires were also lit by this method.
Flicker books were common, most were given as advertisements. These books were small with about a dozen pages and each page had on it a picture almost the same as the others. When you flicked the pages quickly however, the animals and people appeared to move. My favourite was a Bovril advertisement. It showed a bull chasing a man who, just as he was about to be caught, jumped over a hedge. I flicked it repeatedly hoping that he would be caught just once!! These books prompted us to make our own at home.
Many readers will remember "Billy Stampers". These were transfers bought by the dozen and although they were meant to be transferred on to paper, most of them were put on to wrists, children could be seen vigorously patting their wrists and chanting:
"Billy, Billy Stamper stamp my hand".
Many will also remember being dragged to the wash basin (or tub) to have their wrists scrubbed by a cross Mother in an effort to get the ink off our arms before going to school.
Most boys had their hair cut by Father or Mother with a pair of hand shears. This was dreaded for the shears pulled the hair and worse still the hair was lopped off till little remained except at the front where a "topping" was left. My topping would twist two ways so it was called a "cowlick". Sometimes you were lucky, especially as you grew older and went to High Spen to have your hair cut at John Musgrove's or Jot Richardson's. This was really great for they left on more hair and as it was cut with electric shears, there was no tugging. Probably the best bit was waiting for your turn. You sat listening to the "crack" (talk) of the miners who were also waiting. The pitmatic language I didn't understand but the conversation inevitably turned to football and I revelled in it. The various comics were popular, there were "Chips", "Larks", "Comic Cuts", "Jester", "Film Fun", "Tiger Tim", and "Playbox" while for the older boys there were, "Boys Own", "Magnet", "Rover", "Wizard", "Adventure", "Champion", "Gem" and "Boy's Magazine".
I remember being caught by my Father reading the Boy's Magazine. It was a story about a Space Ship. My Father gave me a verbal lashing about wasting time reading these stupid, impossible stories. How little he knew of the future. Some comics and books gave free gifts, albums to collect sportsmen given out in later issues, hair slides for girls, a cardboard and paper contraption which when shook produced a bang, a small coloured transparent celluloid fish which you held flat in your palm and the heat of your hand made it wriggle and lift its tail, and who can forget the circle Of coloured card which had looped string through two holes and which when pulled to and fro revolved at great speed, the colours becoming white and made a lovely noise.
Mentioning noise brings back the voices of happy children playing "Block". Having been caught children would try to warn others of the close proximity of the searcher,
"Look out, look out wherever you are,
The rats and mice are at your door"
or the cry which went up when someone managed to find a long rope to skip:
"All in together girls,
Never mind the weather girls".
In the evenings, when the nights were dark, the mischievous children of the village amused themselves by playing Knocky-Nine-Doors, boys simply knocked at a door and ran away. After a few fruitless journeys to the door, the irate householder came outside and vented his wrath to the darkness, much to the amusement of the hiding rascals. Again, to annoy various people, boys fastened two door "snecks" together then knocked at both doors. Confusion reigned. "Screamers" were also produced by pushing newspaper up a spout and lighting it. The draught caused the burning paper to shoot up the drainpipe with a cascade or sparks and an ear-splitting howl. These games continued and those on Summer nights till bed-time, when Mothers would go to the back-yard gates and call their off-springs. None dared to defy them!
|Madame Hutchinson's Band in the Co-op Hall (1938)
The pit heap was a splendid play-ground. Across the top of it were innumerable holes, dug by the out-of-work miners in search of bits of coal which may have escaped the screens. These holes made excellent shell-craters in the ever popular war games. The sides of the heap made natural slides. Some children slid down on their trousers, and received their just reward when they got home; others sat on shovels and went hurtling down the steep slope. These were ideal slopes for sledging too, if you could find an easy path up which to drag your sledge. High Spen was an ideal village for sledging. East Street and West Street were quiet back streets and of course Bone Hill was ideal if the snow was not too deep. Ramsey Street children had their own back streets, as well as Greenside Bank which was a popular venue. Most sledges were home-made, quite a lot of them from spare timber from the colliery yard. Some indeed were knocked together actually in the colliery joiners shop, paid for in one of the clubs in the village! Perhaps there are many of you who remember Madam Hutchinson's Band and Dancing Troupe of the 1930s. Madam was actually Mrs. Hutchinson of the Folly Greenside. She had, when she was young, been connected in some way with the stage and was very musical and actually wrote "Twilight Melody" a hit song of the early 30s. She put this to great financial advantage by taking in pupils to learn dancing, guitar playing, accordion and even banjo playing.
I remember paying a shilling a lesson while striving manfully to master the guitar. From these pupils she produced a band and a troupe of dancers. We played at many venues and always for charity and it was great fun. The band could split when required, and we often produced a Hill-Billy Band, the vocal lead being Kelly Laws, who had a nice voice and could yodel with the best of them. Had he been alive today he would have made a fortune - another good singer was Maurice Cox. Our signature tune was, "Got my dancin' boots on" and we belted it out with gay abandon. The photograph of the band was taken in the Co-op Hall, above the Co-operative Stores in Front Street. The Concert was in aid of Lily Cornish who had been knocked over by the locomotive, on the local line at the "White Gates" the level crossing near Cardiff Square, and had to have her leg amputated.
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Although officially not part of High Spen, to many, the Woods are part of the village, for they extend right to the edge of the habitation and are well used by the populace, so a brief history will not be amiss. Records mention the Woods at Chapelwell as far back a the sixteenth century and the timber from them has been used as far afield as London, and for many different purposes. Locally, the timber was used to supply bark for the tanneries of Winlaton and Newcastle. In 1635, over two thousand trees were transported to London for the building of the good ship "Royal Sovereign". Timber was also taken for the repairs of the Castles of Dunstanburgh, Bamburgh and Norham and the Long Bridge at Berwick. 1839 saw devastation of the wood by a dreadful storm when over twenty thousand trees were uprooted.
Today, the Woods are maintained by the Forestry Commission and are well known for their beautiful walks and for Christmas Trees! One can still catch sight of rabbits, squirrels, mice and deer but no longer do we see the pine-martins, pole-cats and badgers that were so common two hundred years ago.
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Low Spen can claim to be one of the earliest northern places to be converted to Methodism, for as early as 1743, John Brown, a farmer from Tanfield, moved to Low Spen and invited John Wesley to his house. This visit was the first of many and it was from here that Christopher Hopper of Coalburns was converted and was later to open a Chapel at Barlow in 1744. John Brown continued to hold services in his house, and was a devoted member of the Methodist Society for sixty-four years. This building is still standing and is used as a wheat-drying shed by Mr. S. Emmerson of Hookergate Farm.
From 1744 onwards the people or High Spen who were of Wesleyan faith had to walk over the hill to Barlow; but now that High Spen had grown - so much bigger than Barlow, these faithful disciples demanded their own chapel. In 1867 the Marquis of Bute allowed the [Primitive] Methodists to build a chapel at the top end of Howard Terrace for a rent of five shillings a year. The building cost £200 and had a day school on the premises. About forty children attended. This chapel remained in use till 1884 when a new one was built at the West end of East Street, almost opposite the old one. This was a larger chapel and could seat 320 people. The original chapel was sold and became the Old Assembly Rooms for dancing, ending its days as a depot for the Colliery tradesmen. The Wesleyans meanwhile had continued to go to Barlow till in 1899 they met in the house of William Cooper, a butcher in Front Street and for two years worshiped there; till finally they had their own chapel built at a cost of £150 in Front Street. This Chapel blossomed, then the behaviour of the local Minister caused unrest and most of the congregation moved to the Methodist Chapel in East Street.
Strangely enough the Minister there - a few years later - had domestic troubles and the horrified people left his Chapel and returned to the fold!!
In 1947 Front Street ceased to be used as a place of worship and in 1955 was sold!
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The Churchgoers of High Spen in the early 19th Century had to walk to Ryton or to Winlaton to practise their religion for Barlow and Greenside had no church.
In 1886, the Rector of Winlaton extended his work to Barlow and High Spen by renting houses for use as temporary ohurches,and using curates to preach the Gospel. These premises were licensed for services and baptisms but for other services, burials and marriages, people had to go to Winlaton or Ryton.
There was a service every Sunday and on one weekday. This was very popular with the local people and soon they were demanding their own Church. Such was the enthusiasm for such a building that in no time at all £l,5OO was raised. This was enough and a new church was built in 1890 when it was consecrated as St. Patricks. In 1891 a bell was put into the steeple. The quest was now a vicarage but fortunately the local coal-owners helped the cause and the necessary £600 was raised. The Bishop of Durham himself, came to the service at the Church, at which the new American pedal organ was introduced.
My Father always claimed the honour of being the first baby baptised in the Church. A Church Hall was opened in 1902 and was a very popular innovation. Unfortunately it was severely damaged by fire in 1933 but once again a diligent congregation raised the money needed and a year later the Hall was rebuilt. The Hall still stands today, but unfortunately is not as well used as it was fifty years ago.
In 1935 the congregation pressed the Rector of Winlaton to allow St. Patrick's Church to have its own parish, but the Ecclesiastical Commission sent a list of requirements, a list too long to be met by the Church so St. Patrick's remained part of Winlaton Parish.
Recently however St. Patrick's has become a parish church; at a time when the congregations are at the lowest ever.
I remember the Church well for in 1936 I became a confirmed member of St. Patrick's Church. Those were very enjoyable days. I remember well those Sunday mornings: strolling down with my brother Bob from East Street to Hugar Road, calling in at No. 56 to pick up my best friend Jim Withrington. Joining us there would be Joyce Purvis, Dulcie Rood, Dot Gosling and one or two others. We would saunter down the road idly chattering and laughing. At Beda Lodge Arthur and George Tidman would join us - their father was chauffeur for Mr. Redpath - and off we would go. The solitary bell would clang as "Auntie" Lowes pulled away. On arriving some of us went into the vestry to put on the choir robes, others into the Church. Here would be the Sanderson family of Jack, Alan and Frank Sanderson from Rowlands Gill.
The Church Hall was the scene of much activity - the A.Y.P.A, (of which I was secretary). The Boys Brigade (of which I was a member) and St.Patrick's Players. There were also frequent Social Evenings, these were a cross between a dance and a party, but were very popular.
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Prior to the sinking of the Garesfield Colliery, there was little movement in the High Spen area and as most of the people were farmers they travelled on horseback. With the advent of the miners however and the need to travel for goods etc, travelling was very difficult - mostly on foot on the poor bridle paths which were the roads of those days!
This continued till 1867 when a railway was built between Newcastle and Consett. A station was built at Rowlands Gill (immortalised by "Wor Nannie's a Mazer"!) and three trains a day stopped at the station with more on Saturdays. This was a great help to people in Rowlands Gill but the people of surrounding villages had to walk to the station which was quite a nuisance, especially in the Winter.
This situation continued right up till 1910 when Mrs. Annie Bessford of High Spen began to meet the trains at the station with her horse and "tub" to collect passengers, papers and parcels. Mrs. Bessford went on to buy a "dickie" trap with a rug and coachman to meet special visitors and later a back-to-back "brake" which held eight passengers.
Many pitmen in the Rowlands Gill area saw this as a way out of the drudgery of working in a coal mine, or being on the "dole", and with some money, possibly from parents or other relatives started up on their own.
At High Spen the Robson brothers, Lance and Dick bought themselves a brake and set up in business. About 1920, Mrs. Bessford bought a motor van, named by the local people - the Grey Ghost because of its colour. This carried passengers to Scotswood Bridge which they crossed on foot to join the Tramcar service to Newcastle. The Robson Brothers bought themselves a bus in the same year and ran from High Spen to Scotswood Bridge via Ryton. Clydesdale and Parkers ran from Chopwell to Scotswood and Harpers and Lockey ran from Shotley Bridge to Scotswood. All these driven coaches had to terminate their journeys at Scotswood Bridge as the Bridge was deemed unsafe to take such a heavy load. Ten years later this was changed and buses ran to Newcastle. There was much duplication on these routes and the battles for custom were often brutal. Drivers fought each other with fists, deliberately rammed other buses or forced them off the road, or boxed them in at bus stops so that they couldn't move. Vehicles of rival firms were sometimes put out of action by sabotage, whilst on other occasions "chasers" were used to run ahead of stage carriage buses to pick up passengers. There were bargain packs of tickets provided one kept to the same firm and sometimes free gifts or tokens were given to reward faithful passengers. "Running ahead" and "creaming off" were commonly applied terms in the war for custom. In the evenings the "cowboys" came out to steal some of the lucrative "pub" custom that the operators who had toiled all day justly regarded as their reward. If a bus was still some distance from its terminus and had only a few passengers it would ditch its customers and head back for more custom. The passengers of course often joined in the game, egging on the driver with shouts of "There's a -- bus behind catching you up". Many small operators had vehicles which were difficult to maintain and many drivers did not have the expertise to repair them. Thus many went out of business, others amalgamated.
Clydesdale, Parkers, Harper, Lockey, Reid and Robsons became the "Venture Bus Compan", named after the Venture Coach belonging to Mr. Priestman of Shotley Bridge the last relic of Victorian days, it was pulled by six grey horses.
There were three Robson Brothers but only- Lance and Dick sponsored the Scheme. Robert (Bob to the village) became the first Inspector and became well known and well loved for his efficiency at his task. Woe befell any driver who was late or lazy - Bob's tongue was enough to see that it didn't happen again.
The Yellow buses (Robsons) could be heard for miles and so passengers could organize themselves well in advance. Such was the friendship between drivers and passengers, however that if a "regular" was missing, the driver would wait a few minutes for him and drivers would stop anywhere between halts if they saw someone running to make the stop. When it was foggy, Vance Robson would carry a red lamp in front of the bus as it climbed the notorious Ricklees Bank, a narrow, twisting, tortous road up which the bus had to climb in bottom gear in the best of days. Some drivers transferred to the Venture Company and I well remember Jimmy Little, Les Fellowes, Jonty Patterson, Fred Henderson and Jackie Johnson for their driving ability and sense of humour! Another pitman who chose the new career as a bus driver was Mr. S. Walton. He too started up in business after the Great War. There is a story that when asked to take the Spen football team to Ryton, Seppy decided that having no driver available, he would drive it himself. Trundling along all went well till he got near Burnaby Lodge, Ryton, when he missed the road and went straight through the hedge, the solid tyres riding roughshod over everything. The team was appalled but Seppy laughed, did a tour of the field then aimed the bus at the gaping hole in the hedge, duly arriving back on the road to the consternation of the passengers. The team won their game!! Incredible as it may seem the first buses from Chopwell, the Derwent Coaches left what is now the main road at the farm at the Golf Course and ran down Lead Road, skirting the woods past Coalburns to Greenside then along to Spen.
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In my early childhood, gypsies were quite a common sight on Barlow Fell. From here they visited the houses in Barlow to do business in their various ways. High Spen also had them infrequently. As boys we watched them and studied them (with envy) and eventually I picked up the Romany language. Romanies were true gypsies unlike the Diddicoys who were of mixed origins and were never to be trusted. Left are some of the signs left after a gypsy had visited the village. These signs were made with twigs or with chalk.
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© Copyright 2000 Alex Johnson