Wednesday 21st June 2017.
I was aware of the rich mining heritage of Spennymoor. However, I had never noticed there was a museum situated in the town hall. When I learnt about this, there was an overwhelming curiosity as to where this museum was located, what was available within its collection and who ran the museum. So, on the day of the museum visit, there was an eagerness within me to learn about this museum and its contents.
When climbing the steps of the town hall, one may see a plaque plastered next to a door, then disregard it and continue along their way. However, if they were to stop and read the plaque, they would note that behind this unsuspecting door lay a rich wealth of mining history. Furthering their curiosity and delving through the door would reveal to them a room stacked from shelf to shelf with mining equipment, minerals, images and maps. This was my first impressions of this lovely, little, local museum. After a moment in the room, a woman appeared through a door, greeted each of us and stated we could carefully handle the items that were strewn all around the room.
The Displays and Information
The first display that faced me when I stepped through to the museum was a replica of the Chilton Colliery. It was a beautifully constructed display, which showed the shaft, with a cage descending into the darkness of the mine and a separate room which operated the cages decent. The replica provided a fantastic representation of those depicted in the photographs, while showing the intricate machinery that lay within the walls.
Other items that lay on the shelves and tables were a large driller, which lay across the middle table along with other hand-held machinery. To my left was a collection of miner’s helmets which dated back 100 years. Reading the description that lay propped against the most recent helmet revealed information about why the helmets were designed and what they were made from. It was interesting to read about the progression of safer clothing in the mines from only one hundred years ago. To imagine my grandfathers, my great grandfathers braving the mines with such little protection astounded and impressed me.
Next to the set of helmets was a neat collection of safety lamps, with rust collecting against the aged metal. When picked up, they were a surprisingly light weight, and as the rust plastered my fingers I noticed the differences between these lamps, with some flames being protected by covers whilst others left the flame bare. As I was to find out, this was an extremely dangerous design.
I carefully took pictures and noted down the different items, the range of minerals which were mined; including coals, pyrites, ores and fossils. Soon after entering the room, a gentleman by the name of Jack David followed. He was keen to begin teaching us how the industry of coal began. Beginning from the earliest recording of mining in 3000BC, he spoke about its progression through the industrial age and ending at present day. I thoroughly noted each significant year down, as I knew this would be significant to the WYWY project. After the brief synopsis of the mining industry, he began to focus more concretely on our coal mining heritage.
I was surprised to learn just how many types of coals there were and how these impacted the areas where mining was performed. Each coal having a different use was fascinating, as I had never heard of there being so many coal mines which sought for specific coals, such as coking coal or anthracite.
After informing us on the types of coals typically found in different sectors, Jack pulled out maps of mines within the North East through the years 1650 to 1991. These maps put a perspective on the mines which were opened and closed throughout the years and depicted how the coal mines started more focused across the West side of the North East of England, moving along and dramatically closing in numbers through the end of the 20th Century. It was surprising how quickly the industry had changed within only 100 years. As coal created the smog epidemic in London and the change to oil by the British Navy created less of a need for coal, the industry began to die out, and after the strike in 1984-85, the industry was left with only a handful of mines, which eventually closed 1991. I had never known there to be so many factors which cause the closing of the mines, from the geology, to the lack of need for coal fuels. I jotted this fact as detailed as I could in my notebook, as it felt important to pass on the knowledge that mining had so many factors, that no one usually considers, to keep the industry running.
There is purpose in the design of the mines, which kept the miners safer in the event of an accident or a bombing during the war. Two bombs could cripple two mining pits and kill two innocent sets of men. So, to avoid this, the mines were all connected to each other, allowing someone to walk from the pits of Spennymoor to a mine within Dawdon using underground systems. Fascinating, how one could hypothetically use underground mining systems to travel to different areas, saving themselves from death if necessary.
After looking at several maps that showed a three-dimensional layout of the mining tunnels and the levels which were dug out, I had noted down the idea of using a similar system to provide a more accurate and effective way of presenting information. It was a uncommon way to display the information however it was effective, as I could picture a vivid image in my mind of the mining structure and depth.
We were then introduced to the item that I had been handling earlier; the safety lamps. “These lamps,” he stated, holding up a lamp that encased the flame in glass and metal. “were invented as a gas detector.” Never had I known the miners to use the flame of their lamps as a detector for gases in the atmosphere of the mine. I noted the percentages of methane which would affect the flame. At 1.25% the electricity would need to be turned off; 2.5% meant you withdraw the men from the mine and remove the problem of gases before re-entering. At 5% the flame would explode, making a popping sound as it did so and leaving the miner within the pitch, black shadows. Then, he showed the built-in igniter in the safety lamp he held in his hand. Sparks flew around inside the canister for just a moment, before falling still once again. It was interesting to see the little lamp still working after so many years.
I was then ushered into another room of similar size with even more information draped on every surface: images clinging to the walls, books lined neatly together on racks, a mannequin wearing full miners costume, a telephone and clock, paintings and trophies and a first aid box.
I quickly filed through the many images that protruded on pivoting walls. While flicking through them I found several images of the Dean and Chapter mine. It was surprising to see such a collection within this room, as it was such a struggle to find various good quality images online. After asking about the images, we were told that these pictures belonged to the museum and we could use them within our work.
Jack quickly explained to us some of the items within the room. He stated how each mine would have a rescue team made up almost entirely of volunteers. Each miner also carried their own oxygen tanks that would last around 45 minutes. This self-rescuer would change carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, which, though not healthy to breath, was safer than breathing in the carbon monoxide. It was terrifying to imagine a time limit to my safety, and once those 45 minutes were over, there would be nothing stopping the dangerous gas from poisoning the miner.
Finally, we were taken through to a replica room of a pit, where we were shown in pairs how the mine was constructed and the different jobs miners would receive. There was also a model of the accurate height of a pit pony. This part of the museum piqued my curiosity for information regarding the ponies, as I find animals to be fascinating and their uses in the mines interest me.
Furthermore, I noted how the walls had been made to look like coal and stone. I began taking pictures and notes as inspiration later for our own set design within the WYWY project.
After visiting the museum, I left with a mountain of knowledge regarding mining, as well as more areas of interest within coal mining. I brought ideas which could use the examples shown, such as 3D mapping of mining structures and set design ideas. However, I also came back with more questions that I wanted to research regarding: the ventilation, the machinery, the pit ponies, the artists and the health and safety to name but a few.