Habits and Beliefs: Harold Heslop, 1898-1983.

Mining Communities. Children Play in a Back Alley. Image Courtesy of Pinterest

It would appear, through Harold Heslop’s memoir ‘From Tyne to Tone a Journey’ that as an adult Heslop took his fun very seriously. An avid reader of social realism and an enthusiastic supporter of Karl Marx, Heslop sought an active role in trade union organisations, the Communist Party and later the Labour Party, and when he had any spare time – he wrote.

Still, Heslop recalls well his early years growing up in the rural poverty of the North East, and how the industrial wasteland that surrounded his small mining village became a ‘delectable and not forbidden playground for all the children in the hamlet’ (18). He describes mothers chattering over their fences un-affected by the stench of the cesspits situated at the back of their houses, as their children played about their feet in the tiny back yards. As a new child arrived, harassed mothers would succumb to the pleas of their older children and extend the borders of play, eventually allowing them to play ‘beyond the nessy.’

Leaving the tiny yards to their younger siblings, Heslop and his friends would enter a place that ‘was more than a world of play’ (18). Venturing to where the immense coke ovens raged, the children would explore and play. Avoiding the tramps ‘that made the ovens their home’ they would roast potatoes, eating ‘them down to their scorched blackness’ (21), as they watched in wonder the ‘oven men’ at their work. Heslop also recalls the enormous shale tips that created a valley in which nestled retired locomotives and other discarded mining paraphernalia. One engine, half buried in the shale that had tumbled down the slopes, held a special place in his imagination:

[W]hen I found it I gathered it into the keeping of my childish imagination, all to myself. I made it my very own secret. Whenever I could slip away from the notice of my increasingly harassed mother I clambered over those mounds and hour after hour shared its forgotten aloneness (21).

Miners Collecting Their Wages. Artist: Robert Surtees, 1922.

When he was not journeying many miles in his childish imagination, Heslop would watch the recreational games the men played, such as tipcat or Knurr and Spell. These games became an expression of the miners’ cultural identity, and Heslop recalls how games, such as tipcat would have rarely been seen duplicated elsewhere. He recalls how the weekly structure of work and time off left the men playing a ‘languid waiting game from mid-day on Saturday until bedtime on Sunday’ and the system of fortnightly pay left the ‘intervening week-end as barren as a ditch’ (7). Heslop recalls how:

If there was some pitch and toss being played in some quiet lane many would wander thither and gamble what little they had in their pockets, or merely to watch and advise if they were empty…they left their women folk, fully aproned, to gossip across the spaces between the rows of houses (7).

Quoits was another leisure sport that men enjoyed in their free time. The game required strength and muscular power to throw the heavy iron rings with judgement and accuracy, while ‘Grass ends was different [as this] was a game for old men and boys’ (6), as less accuracy was required when landing the ring. Adeline Hodges, also talks at length about the recreational games the mining men of her community of Northumberland took part in. You can read about her experiences of growing up as a female child in a mega-masculine world here at writing lives.

Knur and Spell. Image Courtesy of All posters.

Heslop describes a ‘homosocial male culture centered on sport, gambling, and drinking’ which served to reinforce a cult of masculinity.[1] The separate gender spheres within the traditionally patriarchal mining community are made clear through the absence of the women in his descriptions and recollections of recreational and leisure activities.

Women’s experience within the mining community was almost exclusively within the domestic sphere. Heslop recalls how a girl child was a disappointment, as females were not permitted to work below ground in the pit or above at the pit head. This situation meant that many women would either leave the area and go into service or stay at home helping to look after siblings and carry out other domestic chores. For most women, leisure ‘often consisted of social intercourse with other women in [a] similar situation’[2] with the extent of their leisure being to gossip over their fences.

 

Works Cited

‘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

Bourke, Joanna. Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender Class and Ethnicity. London; Routledge, 1994.

Gordon Hall, Valerie. Contrasting Female Identities: Women in Coal Mining Communities in Northumberland, England, 1900-1939. Journal of Women’s History. 13.2 (Summer, 2001). 107-31.

Jones, Stephen G. Workers at Play: A Social and Economic History of Leisure 1918-1939. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc, 1986.

Masters, James. ‘The Online Guide to Traditional Games: Knurr and Spell, Nipsy, etc – History and Information’ 1997. Tradgames.org. Web Accessed 21st April 2017.

Ranciere, Jacques. Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. London: Verso, 2012.

Wilkinson, Kate. ‘Adeline Hodges, (1899): Habits, Culture and Belief (Part Two). 14th December 20015. Writing Lives. Web Accessed 21st April 2017.

Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. Milton Keynes: Penguin Random House, 2015.

Footnotes

[1] Gordon Hall, Valerie. Contrasting Female Identities: Women in Coal Mining Communities in Northumberland, England, 1900-1939. Journal of Women’s History. 13.2 (Summer, 2001). 107-31. p110.

[2] Jones, Stephen G. Workers at Play: A Social and Economic History of Leisure 1918-1939. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc, 1986. 59.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *