Life and Labour: Harold Heslop, 1898-1983.

The Cage. Artist: Derek Slater.
Harold Heslop, again hung his head against his arm, as he held on to the cage that descended ‘on and on’ to the bottom of the shaft at Harton Colliery. Stepping from the cage, he peered into the rolling darkness, while the foetid, damp atmosphere of the mine curled around him. Walking forwards, heading into the ‘furthest reaches of the mine’ a ‘feeling of doom’ envelopes him, as he senses his individual freedom being ‘sheared’ from him, as he becomes – yet again – another piece ‘in the majestic purpose of the capitalist mode of production’ (111).

This is the moment, Heslop recalls in his memoirs ‘From Tyne to Tone a Journey’ when he and nineteen others became repatriated back into the civilian world of mining men. It is clear, through Heslop’s description, that he did not welcome a return to a life ‘beneath the fields.’ And he also reveals a growing dissatisfaction, manifested in his feelings of doom, against the industry that he has been a part of for eight long years.

Before the war, Heslop had responded ‘to an urge to write,’ and began, what he hoped would be, his first novel. The details of this first early effort have been lost in the passage of time, yet the urge to write remained with him throughout his war years. Once again returned to the coal-face, ‘in the furthest reaches of the mine, close against the goaf’ Heslop hoped that the stirrings of a novel would begin to take shape.

Five long years after his repatriation, Heslop applied for a scholarship to attend the London Labour College. He was successful, so, in 1924, armed with a typewriter and the typescript of a novel, he moved to London to continue his education. Upon arrival in London, Heslop left the manuscript in the outer offices of the publishing firm Herbert Jenkins Ltd, in the hopes that they may show some interest in his work. This was a reasonable assumption, as this firm had previously published works by other proletarian authors, such as James Welsh, an ex-miner and writer of social realism and class conflict.

Coal-Face Drawer in the Goaf. Artist: Oliver Kilbourn

Unfortunately for Heslop the manuscript, along with a lengthy refusal letter were returned to him sometime later. However, the story does not end there, for a few months later Heslop received a letter from the Embassy of the U.S.S.R. The letter revealed an interest in his novel and suggested it might enjoy some success in Russia. A meeting at the Embassy was proposed with a Mr Ivan Maisky – secretary for the Soviet Legation – with a request that the manuscript be brought along also. This turn of events – It later transpired – had come about through a certain lady, Rochelle Townsend, who had read Heslop’s manuscript while working for Herbert Jenkins. Townsend, had an excellent command of the Russian language and was a close friend of Maisky’s, and recognised the novel’s potential for those in Russia’s literary circles, and had passed on the details.

The novel, Goaf, was translated and published in Leningrad a short while later and proved as popular as Townsend had predicted, selling some 500’000 copies. Heslop was touched by the warm preface written for the novel by Ivan Maisky, and grateful to the publishers who honoured their agreement and paid him his royalties. These remunerations were sufficient to allow Heslop and his sweetheart, Phyllis Varndell, to marry at Brixton Register office on the 26th March 1926.

Miners Returning from Work. Artist: Archie Rhys Griffiths, (1902-1971).

When his time at the London Labour College had come to an end Heslop was duty bound to honour his agreement to the Harton Lodge, and return to the colliery. Packing up a few fragile pieces of furniture, bought with the last of the money from the royalty cheque, the young couple returned to South Shields. Here they set up home in Cleadon, in a little house far removed from the bustling, cosmopolitan streets of London Town. For Phyllis, the isolation of the North Country, was something of a culture shock, while Heslop’s despair deepened with every moment spent back at the coal-face.

The condition of the mine had deteriorated dramatically while Heslop had been away and the general strike had not helped the situation. Working conditions were so appalling and dangerous that Heslop could not remain silent. He spoke and wrote rashly, often boldly,[1] about the working conditions in the mine, earning him the disapproval of the coal-board authorities. Consequently, and perhaps inevitably, when parts of Harton Colliery were condemned and closed off, Heslop was one of the men made redundant and told to look elsewhere for work. Heslop’s aversion to the mines had become such that he could not bring himself to seek mining work with his father or brother, as he felt that he would be a source of embarrassment to them. Instead he and Phyllis packed up their meagre belongings and left South Shields. They would never return to this part of the country again other than for a few family occasions.

Works Cited.

Campbell, Andy. Nina Fishman. John McIlroy. British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: The Post War Compromise, 1945-64. Hants: Ashgate Publishing, 1998.

‘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

Heslop, Harold. Ed Andy Croft, Graeme Rigby. Out of the Old Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994.


[1] Heslop, Harold. Ed Andy Croft, Graeme Rigby. Out of the Old Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994. p185.

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