The reason of my wrighting the particulars of my life and transactions are to inform my famely and the world. I write this from pure motives of justice and truth, and that whether with or against myself. (19)
Anthony Errington was born in 1778 and passed away in 1848. His untitled memoir, edited by P.E.H. Hair as Coals and Rails: the autobiography of Anthony Errington, a Tyneside colliery waggonway-wright, was written between 1823 and 1830. It covers Errington’s life and family in Tyneside. Anthony mainly wrote about the numerous jaw-dropping experiences he had in the collieries whilst also covering his childhood and his superstitions.
An interesting element of Anthony’s memoir is that much of his family worked in the collieries in Tyneside. In the introduction, we are told that “A.E. was taught this trade by his father, Robert Errington.” (3) When he was young, Robert Errington learnt the trade of woodworking eventually bringing his skill to creating waggons. This is the trade that Anthony started the day his father retired. It was a well-respected skilled trade that Anthony and other family members excelled in. I found learning about how these trades were passed down generations very interesting and almost alien to our modern society. The working class was a hard social group to escape in the 18th and 19th century but there were still a lot of respectable positions that these people could achieve with many opportunities to earn an honest living for themselves and their family.
This memoir was a truly engrossing read for me. It boasts a constant flow of extraordinary tales that bring to life a brief moment of working class history in England. Anthony writes how he speaks, using dialect, and this adds more of a voice to his work as it is almost like he is speaking directly to the reader. The memoir also provides a fascinating glance at the huge cultural changes that took place in the collieries due to the influential industrial revolution that occurred in Britain during the time of his memoir.
This was a truly iconic time period for England. David Simpson stated that, “around 7,000 pitmen worked in the [North-East] region in 1787, growing to 10,000 by 1810. Coal mines were opening in the region at places like Newbottle (1774), Lumley (1776), Washington F Pit (1777) and Penshaw (1791).” (Simpson, 2015) The mines were spreading with the development of machinery, something that Anthony Errington was directly involved with. The industrial revolution was an exciting time but also very gruelling for the workers and extremely dangerous which adding a gripping element to the memoir. A lot of his writing covers “his adventures among the perils below,” (4) the workers…
found themselves menaced by another product of the depths, a gas which escaped from coal and exploded when it came in contact with the flame of the candle.” (5)
Antony briefly discusses his childhood, recalling fights, illnesses and a very nightmarish moment when he was nearly getting buried alive. Not only was working life harsh, there were many dangers such as disease and crime, which made being a child in the late 18th century hazardous. I will delve into these moments of his life in more detail in later blog posts. Learning about the gruelling reality of everyday life was shocking but it is important to know as it is crucial that this period of British life won’t be forgotten.
Throughout the memoir, Anthony doesn’t speak directly about trade unions or politics which is surprising for a piece written from the perspective of someone who believed he was underpaid. Besides the dangers of working in the pits, he was very superstitious and believed being a Roman Catholic meant that you had a greater connection with the dead. This will be studied in more depth in later blog posts. It is a very fascinating element of his writing as superstitions in Britain were unlike the ones today. If it was the heavy alcohol consumption or the gruelling hours spent working that caused hallucinations, Anthony and many others were sure of the apparitions that they witnessed.
Errington’s real life experiences, recalled in his autobiography, act as a time machine transporting us back to the world in which he lived. I plan to make this blog as captivating for the readers as it has been exploring this author’s memoirs. Expect a wide range of perilous events in the pits, a sense of working class pride, ghostly apparitions and a generally greater understanding of a time that shouldn’t and won’t be forgotten.
1.231 ERRINGTON, Anthony, ‘Coals and Rails: the autobiography of Anthony Errington, Tyneside colliery waggonway-wright, 1776-c.1825’, transcribed and edited by P.E.H. Hair, TS, 67pp. + 17pp. introduction.
Simpson, David. Introduction to Coal Mining and Railways in the North East. 2015
Gibson John, Excavation of Waggonway in Newcastly, Heddon-on-the-wall Local History Society. URL http://heddonhistory.weebly.com/blog/excavation-of-waggonway-at-walker-newcastle
Sixtownships & Coal Mining Memories UK, Bedlington F Colliery, URL http://www.sixtownships.org.uk/