By the time, Harold Heslop was born into the small mining village of New Hunwick, his father had acquired both of his competency certificates. The purpose of the certificates was to support and increase safety in the mines and men would have to sit an exam to obtain one. The certificates, Heslop remembers, were framed and hung in pride of place on the chimney breast wall. This passing detail, briefly mentioned in Heslop’s autobiography From Tyne to Tone a Journey reveals the family’s pride in William Heslop’s achievements and their attitude towards education as a means of personal and professional improvement.
Early schooling for the children of New Hunwick began at the council school, before moving onto ‘big’ school, were Heslop describes his education as ‘on the cheap.’ He remembers the children all sat on long forms: ‘we each had an inkwell hole, but we had no inkwells. We cleaned our slates with spit and our jacket sleeves’ (32).
Heslop was a bright child and obtained a place at Bishop Auckland Grammar School in the September of 1911 at the age of thirteen. He describes how, in that first year, he came top of his class: ‘I do not think I was unsuccessful in that first year, for I shared the form prize with a farmer’s son, who came from Heighington, near Darlington’ (51). This subtle reference of the ‘farmer’s son’ who Heslop was intellectually equal with, might easily be overlooked, but it is significant. He demonstrates an awareness of the disadvantages faced by the child of a miner as opposed to the more affluent farmer’s child. And we can appreciate how his prize would have been all the sweeter for this.
As it transpired Heslop’s time at Bishop Auckland was to be brief. His father gained a managerial position at the iron-mine in Boulby and the family relocated. The distances proved too great for Heslop to travel and so he informed his tutor that he would not be returning the following term. It is clear through Heslop’s tone, when he remembers this moment, that he was deeply disappointed and this was further compounded by his father’s decision to have him begin work at the pit. Heslop recalls a conversation with his grandmother Whitfield shortly after he starts working and it shows how neither of them were pleased at the situation:
“Now isn’t that like Billie Heslop to put you in the pit! Do you like it?” “I’d much rather have stayed at school,” I confessed. “I wanted to be a solicitor.” “Just like the Heslop’s,” she muttered. “They all talk big about eddication. They allus did. And when they get the chance they send the scholar into the pit like any driver-laddie wi’ a ponie! Shame! …A great shame” (70).
It is unfortunate that William Heslop did not find a way of keeping his son at school, given his own personal ambition and opinion about education. Still, it was not uncommon for children to be taken out of school at this age, as the economic demands of the family often overrode the necessity of education. And of course, as Heslop considered himself, his entry into the mining industry provided him with a whole new kind of education.
Heslop would remain working ‘beneath the fields’ for a further thirteen years, learning and honing his skills alongside men who worked, for example, at ‘drawing timber.’ This work involved enlarging a specific area in the mine by bringing down part of the roof. He describes his experience as he participated in this daring and dangerous work:
I have watched as I have helped at this task of easing the earth of its own pain, and I have felt humbled as I have recognised the exquisite skill and judgment and patience of those men whose duty it was to contrive a limited disaster (12).
Skills, such as these men demonstrated, would have been impossible to teach to a classroom of students. Only working alongside them could you hope to achieve a modicum of understanding and appreciation of the depth of knowledge they possessed. And so, for Heslop, and many others like him, it was through this world of coal and men that he would pass from childhood and become a man. Yet, unlike many of the men who made their living honing this precious mineral, Heslop felt he was not up to the task. He explains:
I had become conscious of a deep aversion to the mines, and utterly out of commendation of the increasing intensity of the productive process. I could have gone to my father and asked him for a job, or to my brother…but I did not for I knew that I would embarrass them (159).
It must be said that Heslop came to this realisation after a two-year absence from mining, when he took a sabbatical to study at the London Labour College. This came about thanks to a scholarship granted to him by the Durham Miners Association. That Heslop, at the age of twenty-six, still desired an education goes someway to showing how important it was to him. And it is fair to say that his time at this college had a profound effect upon him, so much so that its impact would stay with him for the rest of his life.
William White Craik was Principal of the college at the time Heslop enrolled and introduced Heslop to Marxism. This philosopher was pivotal in shaping Heslop into the man and the writer he would become. Heslop puts in his own words – better than I ever could – his experience of being introduced to Marxism:
I was a mere youth come to some penitent form obsessed by a deeper hunger than ever I had hitherto known for salvation, and yet doubtful of attaining a deep enough understanding…[ ]… I did not realise at the time that my discovery of economics was as profound as was that moment when I actually became a member of the underworld of mining men. Both discoveries were shattering (134).
Heslop’s success in gaining an education proved fundamental to his life and his work. It is now evident through the many works he published, that his class-consciousness and political beliefs were a necessary driving force, and as such kept him writing all his long life.
Ball, Stephen J. Education and Social Class. Oxon: Routledge, 2006.
Ellis, Alec. Educating Our Masters. Hampshire: Gower Publishing, 1985.
Fernandez, Jean. Victorian Servants,, Class and the Politics of Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2010.
‘Harold Heslop’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 3:0075.
Heslop, Harold. ‘From Tyne to Tone: A Journey’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:005, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/11000
Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. London: Yale University Press, 2001.