The English village brings to mind images of luscious rolling fields, beautiful stone built cottages with thatched roofs and winding country roads. These are the places words like ‘genteel’, ‘quaint’ and ‘idyllic’ were made for. Travel companies lure weary city-dwellers into England’s villages with promises of tranquillity and unspoiled landscapes feeding into the popular imaginary of villages as somewhere altogether disconnected from the techo-industrial matrix imposed by urban life.
Villages in County Durham at the peak of the coal mining industry, however, were of an entirely different character. With rows of cramped, poorly-constructed terraced housing and dirt roads, they represented what Mark Benney calls ‘an extraordinarily uniform picture of bleak ugliness to the stranger with standards set by South of England villages’. The villages were constructed out of necessity—as mining operations proliferated in 19th century County Durham, colliery-owners had to build accommodation for the previously-dispersed rural populations which gravitated towards the pits for work.
Between 1800 and the 1840s County Durham’s population swelled from 100,000 to 350,000. Increased population movements like this were typical of the century, with traditional agrarian workers enticed to the coalfields by promises of a better life. Most of these great swathes were locals from rural areas, but people from non-mining towns like Darlington and impoverished families from Scotland and Ireland also flooded in.
People seemed to be magnetically drawn to every new pit that was sunk. This steady supply of workers was good news for companies running the mines, but it forced them to grapple with a tough dilemma: how can we house the new employees and their families, and what is the cheapest possible way to do so? This resulted in what local authorities described as ‘long, straight terraces of mean industrial housing strung along highways or packed close together in grid-iron blocks, like patches of Manchester slum set down on open moors and hillside’.
At its height County Durham covered 500 square miles and stretched from the banks of the River Tyne to the Tees and from the east coast across to what is now Cumbria. By the time the mining industry reached its zenith in 1913 there were over 350 settlements in the region. Many of them were hastily assembled and it was not unusual for people to report ad hoc villages appearing seemingly overnight. Others were old rural settlements expanded and adapted for their new residents.
Historical accounts—in their haste to chronologise and peruse grand narratives about the mining industry, often gloss over the fact that village residents were not just one-dimensional characters who had fallen into the back-breaking monotony of harsh and often dangerous manual labour, descending the shaft every day, toiling for a pittance and returning to their underwhelming dwelling to eat whatever their wife had prepared. Despite the relative squalor, the villages were not lifeless shanty-towns. Each community was uniquely vibrant, a place where people could lead active and fulfilling social, cultural and civic lives. They were places where children were raised and families were built. Residents decorated and made improvements to their own homes and established working mens clubs, welfare institutes and co-operative stores. This forged a shared sense of community and helped strengthen the common identity shared by the miners, their wives and families.
Structurally and even functionally, much of the housing had not been fit for purpose in the first place, but by the 1920s observers and campaigners were opining about the derelict state of some villages. The fortunes of the coalfield villages were inextricably intertwined with those of the coal industry, so when the market began to decline in the 1930s, many of them were pushed into further dereliction and poverty. The state of housing and infertile job market became a cause for concern to both the national and local government as capital and population began leaving the region. A national government study of poverty in the area concluded that new industries needed to be attracted to County Durham, with many new industrial parks opening in the region.
Despite attempts by the British Government to resuscitate the coal industry with nationalisation in 1947, by 1951 villages were haemorrhaging population and the problem had metastasised to most of the 350 mining communities in the County. High unemployment—owing to the decline of the coal industry and a raft colliery closures shortly after the war—forced entire communities to look elsewhere for work. Families began moving to centralised urban areas in proximity to new factories, warehouses and offices, leaving once-thriving villages ghost towns. The industrial geography of County Durham started to shift into new towns like Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe. Such towns had grown out of the New Towns Act of 1946. The Act allowed local authorities to masterplan organised towns from scratch, a process that was at odds with the hasty construction of extemporary settlements during periods of rapid industrialisation.
Following World War II the local government in County Durham was faced with the problem of supporting the 85,000 people who still lived in in the dying mining villages. In 1951 a County Development Plan was developed to address the perceived issues. The impetus for the plan had been the passage of the Town and County Planning Act of 1947, which centralised planning and put responsibility in the hands of local authorities. The new law vested considerable power in local councils and compelled each of the United Kingdom’s 147 planning authorities to create their own development plan.
The 1951 County Durham Development Plan was far-reaching and made full use of the authority’s new ability to exercise benevolent paternalism over its population. In the view of the plan’s architects, the villages had ‘outlived their usefulness’ and the solution was a ‘gradual regrouping of population’. This involved categorising all of the towns, villages and hamlets in County Durham according to their potential to continue existing productively. Category A settlements had increasing populations and were marked to receive significant investment for growth. At the bottom of the pile Category D villages—which covered most of the mining villages—would be either left to die or actively killed. A block was put on funding these settlements and the County would take every opportunity to acquire property, rehouse the residents and then destroy the villages completely. The masterplan identified 114 such areas.
The topdown scheme met with opposition at all levels, from residents to the hyper-local authorities responsible for administering sub-regions. Resistance to erasing the villages was effective and there was little progress throughout the 1950s. Although complete clearance had been avoided, the County had successfully followed through on the policy of not providing investment in the declining areas. By the early 1960s, support for the policy had waned amongst the officials charged with executing it. It came as a surprise, then, when the County stubbornly upheld the policy in the Revised Durham County Plan issued in 1964 and sought help from the national government to expedite the implementation. The new plan retired the Category D designation, replacing it with six new categories. Despite this bloated imbroglio there still remained categories devoted to condemning settlements to death by starving them of vital funding or clearing the property completely. In fact the number of such areas rose to 121—7 more than in the original 1951 categorisation.
As the County pressed on opposition became fiercer and more organised. Local council members representing endangered villages formed the County Redevelopment of Villages Action Committee (CROVAC) which lobbied politicians at all levels and held local meetings. One such meeting was attended by shadow government ministers who offered their support against what they saw as the ‘legal vandalism’ planners were committing. Throughout the 1960s, coverage in local and national press lifted public opinion to an all-time high, increasing the appeal of the campaign to the remaining official supporters who were beginning to have doubts about the destruction policy. Indeed many local councillors who had initially supported the clearances publically changed their minds.
Progress for the County was glacial owing to the successful grassroots campaigns and changing ideas about how to deal with the emerging geographies of industry and poverty. In 1977 the policy was officially revoked, and County Durham pledged to support the former coalfield settlements. Despite the plan’s overwhelming failure, three of the 357 pit villages were demolished.
Marsden was one of them. Sitting on the cliffs between South Shields and Whitburn, it was completely demolished in the early 1960s displacing hundreds of residents. In many ways Marsden was typical of the Category D villages. It had entered a decline after the First World War–its school had closed in 1931 and the population gradually shifted to nearby collieries or industrial towns. Nevertheless, according to one source the supposed slum of Marsden ‘had a bowling green, tennis courts, football [and] cricket pitches and a pavilion’ while ‘many people grew their own food in allotments and fished in the sea’. Today members of the Marsden Banner Group are trying to claim back a part of their heritage which was abruptly destroyed. Members of the group help forge links between the displaced residents and write personal histories of the village, continuing the sense of place and identity of a place which no longer exists.
Although only three villages were completely destroyed, many were partially demolished. Witton Park village was archetypical of this. The narrators of a recent documentary about the settlement describe it as ‘a village of absences of houses, of streets and in people. Gaps exist giving it a disparate and sometimes forlorn feel’. People were re-located to the sprawling council estates nearby, essentially gutting the village. Walking through Witton Park today the sense of architectural pastiche is strong—one terraced row includes two system built early 20th century council houses shoved between a pair of 19th century stone buildings. The two newer houses are almost like a scar in the original street, which was cut open and gutted by the Category D designation.
Despite attempts to destroy the mining communities through destructive urban planning the sense of identity in all of the settlements—even those which have vanished—remains strong. Stephenson and Wray, in their study of former pit villages, found that ‘these communities appear to be regenerating themselves using the cultural capital accrued through tradition, and maintained by festival and exhibition’. This is certainly true in Marsden, where relatives of former residents have restored the pit’s banner over the past couple of years. The banner bears the rather fateful slogan ‘firm as a rock we stand’.
In County Durham the interplay of a complex nexus of social, economic and political factors coalesced to leave large swathes of the population in poverty. Rapid industrialisation in the 18th century and the subsequent decline of the national coal industry left the County with hundreds of settlements which were not fit for purpose by the end of World War II. As deindustrialisation took hold County Durham’s planners made full use of their exhaustive new planning powers in the 1950s to plot a demographic shift out of villages and into new urban centres. Although it would be wrong to blame the County’s destructive response for the overall decline of the villages, their haste to relocate populations was unsympathetic and sought to erase the sense of community and identity that pit village residents felt.
This deliberately destructive planning serves as a cautionary tale. Although viewed as a mistake and anomaly by the planning community, it seems strikingly relevant given the recent downturn in the economy of Teeside, County Durham’s neighbour. For decades the region relied on its steel industry until their largest plant was closed in October 2015. It has left over 1,700 workers without a job in a region which was already struggling to find work for its unemployed. Hopefully planners will have the failure of County Durham in mind in their attempts to compensate for their newfound unemployment.
B. Caudwood, ‘Marsden Village’, Marsden Banner Group (http://www.marsdenbannergroup.btck.co.uk/MarsdenVillage)
Carol Stephenson and David Wray, ‘Emotional regeneration through community action in post-industrial mining communities: The New Herrington Miners Banner Partnership’, Capital and Class 87 (2005): 175-199.
D. Senior, Growth Points for Durham, pamphlet for Durham County Council, undated.
Gary Pattison, ‘Planning for decline: the ‘D’-village policy of County Durham, UK’, Planning Perspectives 19 (July 2004): 311-332.
Mark Benney, ‘The Legacy of Mining’ in Mining and Social Change: Durham County in the Twentieth Century by Martin Bulmer (ed.) (Routledge: Oxon, 2015).
Ronald Snowdon, Condemned to Die: Housing Action and Social Justice South West Durham 1949-1979 (Unpublished masters thesis at the University of Durham, 1979).
Russell Davies, ‘Planning for Destruction’, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, May 20th 2008.
William A. Geenty, County Development Plan Written Analysis: Prepared for The County Council of Durham (1951).