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Times working at South Tyneside’s pits

John Atkinson.
John Atkinson.

Preserving parts of South Tyneside’s past, for the benefit of present and future generations, is essential to prevent the loss of some outstanding aspects of the area’s proud social and industrial heritage.

So it’s good to hear that an important historical project has just reached a key milestone, namely the completion of the first phase of the National Lottery-supported restoration of St Hilda’s Pit Head.

Deputy Mayor Coun Norman Dick with members of the Westoe Brass Band during the unveiling of the Blue Plaque at St Hilda's Colliery.

Deputy Mayor Coun Norman Dick with members of the Westoe Brass Band during the unveiling of the Blue Plaque at St Hilda's Colliery.

To coincide with the completion of the work (made possible by Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust, with funding from South Tyneside Council, a £548,200 Heritage Lottery Fund grant and others) a Blue Plaque was recently placed at the pit head to commemorate St Hilda’s Colliery Band, which won the World Band Championships five times, in 1912, 1920, 1921, 1924 and 1926. It is a feat which has never been equalled.

News of how the restoration work is progressing, prompted a former St Hilda’s and nearby Westoe Colliery worker to get in touch with his memories of working there – and other pits locally and further afield.

He is John Singleton Atkinson, who today lives in South Shields.

John said: “My father, John Atkinson, worked at St Hilda’s, on the screens, where they sorted the coal.

“When I was leaving school at 15, he asked me what I would like to do, and I decided that I would like to be an apprentice electrician at Westoe colliery where he was working at the time.

“So, I had an interview and started working there (and St Hilda’s) in 1949.”

John Singleton was then promoted to a shift charge engineering post before progressing to deputy electrical engineer at Westoe.

But still being ambitious he “decided to try for further promotion and put in for engineering posts at other collieries (I applied for a job at Marley Hill in County Durham) and was appointed as engineer there”.

Eighty four-year-old John was there for two to three years before again going for promotion, becoming the assistant area engineer at the NCB headquarters at Team Valley.

“I worked there for quite a while before putting in for the electrical engineering post at Vane Tempest colliery in Seaham. I was there for a few years before retiring in 1991.”

Looking back, John remembers how:“When I arrived at St Hilda’s there was limited electricity and they used to use steam.

“There were steam boilers into which men used to feed coal.

“There was a huge machine in a big brick building, like a big piston, which provided the ventilation for the colliery.

“At Westoe they needed a new shaft. They chose a huge site and built a washery there. I was put in charge of getting the wiring done.

“There were service baths at Westoe where the miners used to get showered. At home I would never get a bath, I always showered.

“At Westoe I also worked on the installation of the winding equipment.”

On a lighter note, John recalls a time when work almost got in the way of romance.

“I remember when I was about 18 or 19, I had arranged to take my girlfriend (who later became John’s wife) to a dance at St Michael’s Church in South Shields, where I was in the choir, but St Hilda’s stopped me getting there on time.

“I was given a job on the winders and I got stuck down there, so I asked one of my friends, who was going to the same dance, to pick her up on his motor bike and take her there and I would meet her later, which thankfully I did.”

What are your memories of working in the area’s coal industry, either below ground or on the surface?

Were you a member of one of the local brass bands?