Housing in the Durham Coalfield
Sally-Ann Norman & Graeme Rigby
It is interesting to study a row of houses… If it were possible to lift the roofs and peep inside it is more probable that the outward appearance would be found to express the atmosphere within. The Ideal Home Magazine, 1938
It is now generally accepted that a full social, cultural and educational life cannot be achieved with the village as a unit. CW Clarke, Farewell Squalor, 1946
The colliery villages of Durham developed intensively from the 1830s to the 1840s in response to the massive new demands of the industrial age. Further settlements appeared sporadically, through until the 1960s. The seams lie closer to the surface in the west and the earliest villages were built here. As early as 1820, a shaft sunk at Hetton proved that the coal extended beneath the limestone ridge of East Durham and that the seams are thicker. The larger villages in the East were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is an epic quality to the history of these mining communities, to be traced through the ribbon-like terraces, the neat rows of aged miners’ bungalows and the high-minded post-war visions of a better future. It is a monumental narrative: the rapid and brutal expansion, the ambition that can grow from communal strength, abandonment and enforced contraction.
The tip itself towered to the sky and its vast dark bulk, steaming and smoking at various levels, blotted out all the landscape at the back of the village. Its lowest slope was only a few yards from the miserable cluster of houses. The atmosphere was thickened with ashes and sulphuric fumes; like that of Pompeii, as we are told, on the eve of its destruction. The whole village and everybody in it was buried in this thick reek. JB Priestley, An English Journey, 1933
Awestruck and horrified in his ‘English Journey’, JB Priestley saw Shotton Colliery as ‘a symbol of greedy, careless, cynical, barbaric industrialism’. Within the mining communities themselves, however, a commitment to self-improvement, driven initially through the union lodges and the chapels, was longstanding. The Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association had been established in 1898: its work a testament to community values and a profound influence on housing policies, as municipal Labour Party power developed its social agenda.
In 1947 saw the nationalisation of the pits and a new post-war optimism for a better social, cultural and educational life and an infrastructure to would support economic diversification. The New Towns Act of 1946 ultimately led to 22 new towns in the UK. East Durham’s was the seventh, its name, suggested in the report which led to its creation, deriving from that of a self-educated miners’ leader, Methodist and leading Durham politician: a celebration of the values which had brought the coalfield so far.
Let us, therefore, close our eyes on the nineteenth century degradation and squalor, and let us only look with unseeing eyes on the sordid excrescence of the first decade of this century, let us blind ourselves to the septic and ugly building wens and ribbons perpetrated and planted on us between the wars, but let us open our eyes and look brightly forward and onward to the new town, the new living… Peterlee. CW Clarke, Farewell Squalor, 1946
I imagine that I am walking or driving along the roads drawn out in my cartoon. Victor Pasmore, BBC Radio symposium, 1967
In 1948 the site was designated, Peterlee Development Corporation formed and the visionary architect Bernard Lubetkin appointed. Taking the bowl of the land between Easington, Horden and the A19, he planned a town, mostly of high-rise blocks, that would follow the natural contours.
The miners and the site itself, were an inspiration, their work and way of life was too dangerous, too serious, for picturesque gimmicks or trivialities, and the usual bourgeois conflicts were quite absent. The site was like an amphitheatre, allowing a design in which the formal order would not just be imposed architecturally but arise directly from the genius loci. Bernard Lubetkin
The priority was for a rapid growth that would help stem the migration from the area but the newly-established National Coal Board argued that high-rise buildings would compromise their development options. After lengthy consultation and review, it was ruled that coal extraction was to be gradually phased out over a period of forty years. The decision was entirely contrary to Lubetkin’s vision. The press cast him as a villain who would steal the employment futures of a generation and he resigned, later holding the theory that the new town had been no more than a dream town, a placebo, suspending discontent with existing conditions whilst the coal industry could be dismantled.
The dull rows of housing built after Lubetkin left did not even begin to address the original ambitions for the new town. ‘A descent from the spectacular to the nondescript… one could find no delight in what had been achieved,’ commented AV Williams, the Develoment Corporation’s General Manager. In 1954, after nearly four years of building, he appointed the artist Victor Pasmore as a new visionary, to work alongside the architects and planners in the South West area. The vision was not only low rise, but flat-roofed, a transposition of Mediterranean light and line, a dialogue between art, architecture and urban design.
The housing is no longer chained to the road system in endless ribbon formation. Housing and road layout have been treated as different organic processes and they have been oriented in such a way as to allow both factors to complement each other through opposition on one solid and rigid; the other linear and elastic. In this way movement is accompanied by variety and surprise. Victor Pasmore, BBC Radio symposium, 1967
Global warming arrived too late for Peterlee. Even now, the prevailing weather patterns fall short of the Mediterranean and the flat roofs have mostly been replaced by pitched ones. And Pasmore’s Pavilion, an architectural sculpture intended to be a monument to lift the activity and psychology of an urban housing community has been the subject of community demolition demands since the 1970s.
People didn’t want to change their way of life but they had to… T Dan Smith, 1968
In East Durham, people would be encouraged to move from the substandard housing of the colliery villages to the new town of Peterlee. In the west of the coalfield, the 1960s saw the wholesale closure of the pits, accompanied by the designation of certain villages as Category D: to be demolished where possible, otherwise allowed to deteriorate, wither and die. The refusal of improvement grants in these communities was just one of the means through which the housing plan would be achieved.
The Category D policies failed to remove many of the communities that were supposed to go. Many people didn’t want to move and low house prices attracted new occupants. Likewise, there was no great rush from the pit villages of East Durham to the ‘full social, cultural and educational life’ of the new town. Partly through a shortage of rented accommodation, it did attract a new generation, who may not have been working in the pits, but didn’t want to move too far from the streets they knew and the culture they had inherited. Durham’s post-industrial housing legacy is a series of stubborn survivals.
There is no avoiding the hard demographic facts, now, however. ‘People have been leaving the county, particularly the most deprived parts. Since this out-migration involves young people, the implications are obvious,’ comments Durham’s new strategic plan. The sell-off of ex-colliery housing has seen an increase in home ownership and an expansion of the role of housing associations, but it has also seen wide scale purchase by private landlords, some of whose rental policies have encouraged an influx of problem tenants. Across the coalfield, many residents complain of deliberate attempts by private landlords at lowering the values of adjacent properties to facilitate their own expansion.
In many of our deprived communities the housing stock is sub-standard and the tenure balance is not conducive to strong and healthy communities. In parts of the county half of the homes fall below accepted decency standards… Years of under investment by the public and private sectors means that radical regeneration action may be required. Strategic Vision for County Durham, 2003
There is planning and there is community action on the ground. As one Easington Colliery resident explained, pointing down the street: ‘Rented, bought, rented, rented, bought, bought, rented, bought, then there’s them four, they’re rented. We try and keep it tight, keep an eye on who’s moving in. If we don’t like them we block it. We don’t want it to get like them streets up there. There’s all sorts goes on up there. It’s like Beirut.’ Or as it says in the plan: ‘For generations County Durham people have faced life’s challenges together and this shared sense of history and culture has created a bond that can be harnessed to face up to the future.’
The story of housing in the Durham Coalfields is one of choices faced in the adjustment to change; of the complex relationship between economics and community; of the possibilities for contentment and well being in a landscape of exploitation. The visions and failures are writ large. ‘It is interesting to study a row of houses,’ because it tells us who we are.