There was a time when coal was king in the North East. Coal and steel were two inter-related industries, and they were the engines of change which powered the industrialisation of Great Britain. As I mentioned before, I come from a family of coalminers, in a small Derbyshire village. Part of the coalminer’s job was to keep his tools in good order, and to replace them when they wore out. If he worked at the coalface he needed a good quality pick – a case of individual preference as to size and weight in this case – and a shovel, as well as other items, depending on his job underground.
The Annfield Plain Industrial Co-operative Society was part of the national Co-operative movement which grew to prominence in the 1830s in Britain. The idea of the working classes owning their own shops and providing good quality food, and other items, at sensible prices became extremely attractive, particularly in the North of England. The original Victorian Co-op building in the small mining village of Annfield Plain (around 12 miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne), was eventually removed brick by brick and rebuilt at Beamish, The Living Museum of the North, and stocked with Victorian era items, typical of those found in a store of the period.
Here we see a section of the hardware displays which show several objects which coalminers needed. There is a large enamelled sign for ‘Burys Celebrated Patent Picks’; these have forged steel heads made to ‘Brown’s Patent’, by Burys & Co. Ltd, Sheffield, which used to be the steel-making capital of the world. There were various pick sizes and designs, because underground conditions and the type of work being undertaken, varied widely. Here we see illustrated the ‘Soldier’, with a narrow ‘eye’ in the pick head, and the ‘Lion’, with a broad ‘eye’. The pick illustrated – sometimes called a mandrel, in certain coalfields - is a ‘No. 1, 2 lbs’ size. Off to the left of the photograph you can see a stamped metal advertisement for ‘Spencer’ brand ‘Picks and Miners Tools of Every Description’. Once again, the company, Spencer & Sons, were based in Sheffield, England.
A coal mine is an incredibly harsh environment – even more so in Victorian times – as it is both hot and dusty. In a place where you need lots to drink, any water coming in from between various strata is likely to be both hot and mineral-laden, hence the need for the metal ‘Acme’ Miner’s Bottle you can see on the top shelf.
Mining families tended to grow a lot of their own fruit and vegetables, and certain vegetables are forever associated with the coalfields. The Leek (Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum), for example, was grown competitively, and entered in various classes at the many horticultural shows across the region. In the centre of the display you can see a large advertisement for the “Broad Acre – Blue Diamond Label” spade by Leedham & Heaton Ltd, of Armley Road Works, Leeds and Atlas Forge, Wigan, as well as ‘Webbs’ Seeds – For All Climates’ (one of my Father’s favourites), a company which is still flourishing today.
This hardware display gives many valuable clues to both the work and leisure activities in a Victorian coalfield community, and it also shows why I enjoy visiting Beamish so much.