Recent preparatory work in a meadow of an area now known as Lottie’s Wood at East Sunniside Farm by the Woodland Trust, has revealed the existence of a bell pit system in the field (pictured above with Society Chairman Colin Douglas). The work has involved deep ploughing to a depth of about one metre in preparation for sowing seed to create a wild flower meadow. Ploughing to such an unusual depth has turned over the turf and top soil bringing the underlying boulder clay to the surface. This has the affect of burying the weed and grass seed leaving an almost sterile surface on which to sow the particular variety of wild flower seed.
The work has revealed two circular areas, each about six metres in diameter and about forty metres apart where there was obviously no underlying boulder clay. This was noticed by Colin Douglas our Chairman when walking along a path in the field and he initiated further enquiries which have shown that a very early map, dated 1818, recorded a pit in this area in 1637. Subsequent site visits by a number of specialists including Ian Ayris and Jenny Morrison, Tyne and Wear Industrial Archaeologists, Hylton Marrs, local expert mining historian and author of several books about the coal mining industry and Gary Haley, area manager the Woodland Trust, have all confirmed that there is little doubt that this was the site of the 1637 pit.
This identifies it as one sunk in the very early days when coal mining was being developed in a southerly direction from the banks of the river Tyne via Whickham towards Sunniside, Blackburn Fell, Marley Hill and eventually Tanfield. The 1637 date means that coal was being mined at Sunniside almost one hundred years before the wooden wagon way system was built and the method of transportation would be by four wheeled carts known as waines, usually pulled by two horses and two oxen, down to the keel boats on the Tyne (pictured above).
At this time bell pit mining was the most advanced coal mining technique in operation along with drift mining. It was used to dig coal from seams relatively close to the surface and no supports or props were used in the operation. A vertical shaft was dug (pictured above), some historic articles have suggested to a depth of between 10 – 20 metres into the coal seam and the coal dug out using wooden picks and shovels. The seam was worked outwards from the shaft bottom for so far as the quality of the air and or the safety of the unsupported structure would allow. Most frequently a pair of shafts were sunk about forty metres apart and the coal seam dug out to link the two workings. This improved the air flow in the working enabling a larger area to be worked underground.
When the pit became unsafe and very often only when an accident or collapse had demonstrated this, it was abandoned and another one dug. The spoil from the new shaft was deposited into the disused one so there was very little evidence of even very intensive bell pit mining activities as there were for example, with the huge spoil heaps associated with the deep mines dug later when the shallow seams became exhausted. Horses were very often used to winch the baskets of coal to the surface and the same method was used to lower and raise the workers which frequently included women and boys.
The name ‘bell pit’ comes from the description of the working which looked like an upturned hand bell. There were very many of these, especially in the Whickham area where records show that there were several hundred being operated between the 14th and 16th centuries. In spite of this it is very rare now-a-days that bell pits are as identifiable as the one discovered at Sunniside. In fact Hylton Marrs said that in more than sixty years working in mines, recording their locations and writing about coal and its transportation, this was the first bell pit he had ever seen. It will not be visible for very much longer however, because nature and the wild flowers will quickly hide it’s existence once again.
Consequently Colin Douglas said that he hoped that some funding may be obtained to ensure that the pit is identified with perhaps a display board and the site encircled to include seating. Supporting his suggestion Ian Ayris said that although the bell pit find would be included in official records, on-site identification would be of added interest to those walking in the wild flower meadow of the future. Garry Haley said that the Woodland Trust would support any efforts made by Sunniside History Society to ensure that its location was appropriately identified so that people will be reminded of the huge coal mining heritage of our area.
FUNDING WAS PROVIDED BY CDENT (COUNTY DURHAM ENVIRONMENTAL TRUST) THROUGH THE WOODLANDS TRUST AND WORK BEGAN IN SEPTEMBER 2007 TO PERMANENTLY MARK THE SITE
THE UNVEILING ON SATURDAY 6th OCTOBER 2007
Thanks to the Woodlands Trust, County Durham Environmental Trust (CDENT) and the Sunniside History Society, contractual work was carried out on the bell pit discovered by Colin Douglas at Streetgate with the aim of marking it permanently and ensuring that in future years people will have the opportunity to visit the site and learn about bell pits. Pamphlets were distributed which had been created by David Auton.
On Saturday 6th October 2007 2.0pm at an event hosted by Sunniside History Society, a plaque and plinth was unveiled on site by Dave Anderson MP in attendance with Gateshead Mayor & Mayoress David and Susan Lynn, Councillors Alan & Marilyn Ord, Councillor Jonathan Wallace, Lina Beck of Hillside Church, Gary Haley of the Woodlands Trust, Mr & Mrs Rutherford of CDENT, County Archaeologists Miss Jennifer Morrison and Mr Ian Ayris, Officials of Sunniside Social Club and representatives of other organizations including the Libraries and members of Sunniside History Society. BBC television filmed the event for the local news.
Afterwards at Sunniside Social Club a buffet was enjoyed, a film was shown of the evolution of the bell pit project and archive film footage showing the hardships endured by coal miners and their families in the early 20th century. Framed facsimiles of the Bell Pit plaque were presented to the Civic Dignitaries as well as Mr Rutherford of CDENT and The Officials of Sunniside Social Club.
Pictured prior to and after the unveiling is Dave Anderson MP and in the background, Mayor and Mayoress David and Susan Lynn. Also pictured is Lina Beck of Hillside St Cuthbert’s Church.
Pictured on the right at the plinth, Councillors Alan & Marilyn Ord with fellow Councillor Jonathan Wallace.
The Bell Pit project in full.
UNVEILING PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF DAVID AUTON, WHICKHAM & SUNNISIDE ADVERTISER.
On the opposite side of the road to the farm next the Bell Pit site there stood a whitewashed cottage (marked on Fryers enclosure map of 1805 and pictured above on the left), this was the home of Lottie Brabban (nee Rutherford) and her husband Billy (pictured above on both photographs), who worked mainly at Marley Hill Coke Ovens up until his death in 1932. The cottage had a large living room and a bedroom, there was also a kitchen with a fire range, both rooms having stone flagged floors. Prior to 1885 the cottage was the abode of the Blacksmith at Loosing Hill. Around this time a building adjoining the cottage on the west side was demolished. The cottage stood next to the building which would become the White Elephant School, it’s history is well documented on this website.
In her younger days, Lottie could work as hard as any man, even in her later years she remained strong both in mind and body. She worked in the fields for local Farmers and Growers, often seen wearing a cap, she could handle horses well and drive a carriage. When in her early 70’s she sometimes wheeled a barrow load of coals along to her sister Bella at Grange House, Streetgate.
The Woodland Trust asked for suggestions to give a name to the meadow running from the rear of East Sunniside Farm, two members of Sunniside History Society, local ladies Sheila Gascoigne (nee Scorer) and Eleanor Baty (nee White) suggested that it should be named Lottie’s Wood.