Backworth is a small village in North Tyneside, close to Whitley Bay and the A19 Corridor.
Backworth Colliery Band was formed by 1886, and was part of the social element of the surrounding mine workings. The start of the band was funded in part by fundraising events such as concerts; the earliest dates to 1871.
The band was originally a wind band (including instruments such as clarinets and flutes) but become wholly brass in the 1920s. The band was initially known as “Backworth Collieries Band”. Between approximately 1950 and 1970 the band was known as as the “Backworth Collieries’ Workmen’s Prize Band”.
The band rehearsed originally in the Miner’s Welfare, then across the road to Backworth Club, which has been our home most of the time since 1924.
The membership of the band has been traditionally drawn from the mining community. However as the mine works diminished, the band’s membership has changed and the band now has a membership compromising of people from many walks of life.
The senior band rehearses on Tuesday nights and Thursday nights, and the junior/training band practices fortnightly on Friday evenings.
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Brass Band Culture
Brass bands were born out the strange marriage of working-class life and technology.
At the turn of the 19th century, many collieries and other heavy industries supported or held in their association musical groups, popular amongst which were wind bands, consisting of brass, woodwind and percussion instruments.
At the time, brass instruments were very rudimentary, either being valve-less horns and trumpets only capable of a few notes, or experimental keyed instruments which lacked the focused tone of their valve-less cousins.
Around the 1830’s, the application of valves to brass instruments were introduced. This enabled trumpets and horns to play all the notes of the scales, and thus play more ‘melodic’ music. Coupled with this was the invention in the mid-1800’s of the Saxhorn family of valved brass instruments by Frenchman Adolphe Sax. This family contained a homogenous series of instruments, from the flugel horn to the BBb bass tuba, all using the same principals.
The addition of cornets and trombones to the Saxhorn family creates what is still is the tradition brass band instrumentation of soprano cornet, 9 b-flat cornets, 1 flugel horn, 3 tenor horns, 2 each of baritones and euphoniums, 3 trombones and 2 each of Eb and BBb basses. Only the addition of a percussion section and the use of a Bb/F bass trombone is how a modern brass band differs from the first ones.
Northumberland Miners’ Picnic
Nothing sums up the history of the band more than the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic. First staged in 1867 in Blyth, the ‘Picnic’ became a celebration of the Northumberland mining history.
The picnic consisted of each pit village’s brass band and banner marching to the host town. Then the bands would play a march in competition with other local bands. A separate section for bands outside of Northumberland would also take place (the ‘B’ section). These marches and competitions would attract up to 50,000 people.
Then the bands would march to the local field or park where they would perform more music, listen to speeches given by notable political figures of the day, and be presented with their prizes in an awards ceremony.
The first picnics were held between Blyth, Newcastle and Tynemouth. In the 1930’s they were held in Morpeth, until 1952 when they moved to Bedlington until 1992 (the band won the first ever Bedlington picnic!). The final few years of the picnic, at least it this format, were held in Ashington until the last contest in 2002.
The picnic is now observed by a memorial service in Ashington every June. Although the Northumberland Miners Picnic has gone, the Durham Miners Picnic (Gala) continues to uphold the traditional and attracts huge crowds to hear the bands. Backworth Colliery Band have been proud to lead the Eppelton banner at Durham for a number of years.
The Backworth Collieries
The village of Backworth lies some six miles to the north east of Newcastle and was once a major mining centre. Today little remains to indicate this activity so thorough has the reclamation work been. Only grassed-over mounds indicate the site of former workings. The village too is a shadow of its former self with many of the former pit rows having been demolished. A period of regeneration in the area has now commenced, including the development of the Eccles and Fenick Pit areas.
Mining commenced at Backworth in 1813 and continued until 1980, a period of 167 years. During that time the industry saw great technological changes with advances in all aspects of mining from the winning of the coal to its transport and shipment. The Backworth Coal Company and its previous owners were never one of the great concerns like Hartley Main or Lambton. Much of their railway equipment was bought second-hand from mainline railway companies, and this gave the system a very antiquated look. The company was the last in Northumberland to stop using chaldron wagons and for many years their trains were hauled by NER class 964 saddle tanks of 1873 vintage. Nationalization in 1947 brought modernisation and rationalization. Pits were either closed or combined and the railway system contracted. Whilst at other collieries diesel locomotives replaced the steam locos, at Backworth they continued to be the mainstay of traffic until almost the end. Fortunately some of the Backworth locos are now preserved and can be seen at various preserved railways most notably the Tanfield Railway.
The Backworth Collieries – Full History
The mineral properties of Backworth and the surrounding area are owned chiefly by the Duke of Northumberland. Coal has been mined in this part of Northumberland since early times and during the early 1700’s the area around Backworth was extensively mined. There was no mining in Backworth itself because of the 90 fathom fault which threw the seams down some 120 fathoms at this point. If it was known that coal was there at this time it was not mined because it could be won much easier and cheaper to the south as the measures outcropped just to the south of this fault. Thus by 1765 a wooden waggonway had been built by Gibson, Bell and Brown to serve the royalties of Flatworth, Shiremoor and Murton to the south of the Backworth royalty. This wagonway ran from Whitehill point on the Tyne via High Flatworth to Murton Row on the northern edge of the Flatworth royalty. At Murton Row the line divided, the western branch running a short distance to serve pits in the Shiremoor royalty south of the allotment. The eastern branch ran a short distance to serve pits in the Murton Royalty around Shiremoor House. By 1810 this branch had been extended further north to pits in the Murton Royalty around the village of New York. This system lasted as such until the early years of the 19th century with the positions of the feeding branches changing as pits were worked out and new ones sunk.
By 1810 these royalties were leased by a group of partners:- Maude, Lamb, Taylor, Plumer and Buddle. The latter was John Buddle probably the most notable mining engineer of his day and the developments which followed were largely due to him. At this time the old colliery was virtually worked out and Buddle must have had his sights on what lay beyond the 90 fathom dike. In the short term the partners began a new sinking east of Allotment farm which was to become the Algernon pit. Coal drawing began in June 1810. At the same time conversion and upgrading of the old wagonway began with Buddle writing to the Butterley Iron Works in Derbyshire on the 17th May 1810 asking them to quote for cast iron rails, ‘the same as those supplied to Benwell Colliery’. These were to be 3ft long weighing 29lbs with 7lb pedestals. Two days later replying to the Butterly Company’s offer of £12 per ton and pedestals at £14 Buddle wrote that part of the wagonway was to replace a wooden one now in use and also would it be aggreable to extend the order from 300 to 600 yds more. This last addition would be to extend the line to the new sinking. This new pit did not last very long as it closed in April 1814. To the casual observer it would seem a great deal of expenditure to lay a cast iron wagonway and sink a new pit at an old colliery especially one which would only be open for four years, but the partners had long term plans. In 1812 they had negotiated with the Duke of Northumberland the lase of the nearby Backworth royalty, where boring had been done to prove the extent of the coal measures north of the 90 fathom fault.
The first sinking at this royalty was the ‘A’ pit, where ground was broken in August 1813. Coal production commenced in September 1818 and the new wagonway was extended the 1V» miles to reach the new venture. The first shipment of coal left Whitehill point on board the ‘Nailer’ on the 10th September of the same year.
The extension of the 1810 cast iron railway was along one of the Shiremoor pit branches serving the Hope Pit. It left the Hope branch at the site of the later Allotment engine and ran north, north west to reach the ‘A’ Pit. In 1821 sinking of the ‘B’ Pit commenced about 800 yds to the north of the ‘A’ Pit and in December of that year the first stationary haulage or ‘standing’ engine was built at the Allomtment to draw wagons up the slight incline from the colliery, thereby eliminating the use of horses on that part of the line where the gradient was against the load. During 1823 another engine was brought into use at Murton Row and the remaining section to the staithes was converted to rope
haulage soon afterwards. Another engine was installed at Percy Main sometime between 1824 and 1827.
In 1823 the Cramlington wagonway was built from pits to the north of the Backworth royalty to a staith at Whitehill point. This line ran parallel to the Backworth line but a little to the east for much of its route, joining the Backworth line at Murton Row for the final section to the river. In 1826 Seghill Colliery began sending their coals down the Cramlington line and the increase in traffic must have placed a great strain on the Backworth railway as the partners had been developing their colliery further.
In 1823 the Duke Pit was sunk at Earsdon Square followed soon after by the Duchess Pit nearby. This venture was owned by the Earsdon Coal Company, a partnership comprising Tayler, Lamb, Plumer and Clark, the first three being Backworth partners also. The line which served these pits branched near the Bell engine running east for about a mile to Earsdon Village, crossing the Cramlington Company’s line by an over bridge. In 1828 another branch was built from the Bell engine running north east to West Holywell Colliery crossing the Cramlington line by means of a tunnel. It is likely that the Bell engine worked traffic on both these branches. West Holywell was again a separate concern, though some of the Backworth partners; Taylor, Lamb, Clark and Plumer were involved. Also in 1828 sinking started at East Holywell pit owned by Taylor, Lamb and Clark under the title the East Holywell Coal Company. This was reached by an extension of the line from the Duke and Duchess pits, a distance of less than a mile.
There were further developments in 1838 when the Earsdon Coal Company sank the Church Pit which was given a rail outlet by building a short branch to join the East Holywell line. This ran almost north and formed one side of a ‘Y’ junction with the other being the line to East Holywell. Also at this time a long extension of the main line was built running north from the ‘B’ Pit a distance of 3Vz miles to reach the West Cramlington Pit. It is likely that this pit was also a separate venture as it was soon given its own staith west of Hayhole point reached by a short branch off the main line at Percy Main.
The increase in traffic down the Backworth line caused severe congestion south of Murton Row, where traffic joined from Cramlington and Seghill. The situation became intolerable for these owners as Backworth traffic would have priority and so in 1839 the Seghill owners began constructions of their own line running parallel to the Cramlington line but turning south at Percy Main to reach their own staiths at Howden. This line was completed in 1840. The Cramlington owners also wanting to improve their position also built a new line in 1839 to eliminate their dependency on the Backworth line. This took the form of a by-pass branching off the old route at Murton Row before the junction with the Backworth line and after crossing the Seaton Burn Wagonway ran on an independent route to new staiths at Howden, where it met with the line from Seghill. The Seghill line was later to become the Blyth and Tyne Railway and ultimately would become part of the North Eastern Railway.
This construction work also affected the Backworth system further north. The building of the Seghill line effectively doubled the width of railway which the West Holywell and East Holywell branches had to cross. At the former the length of the tunnel was increased by 42 ft by building a cut and cover underpass with stone walls and steel girders for a roof. The original tunnel had been a brick arch.
1843 saw the first closures on the system when the Duke and Duchess pits were closed in April of that year followed shortly after in June 1846 with the closure of the Church Pit The branches serving these concerns were then lifted. A further half mile was added to the main line however, when a link was put in with the newly opened York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway. This ran west from the West Cramlington Colliery and provided the company with another outlet for their coal.
The West Holywell Company sank a new pit at Low Steads in 1853 and built a new line to serve it branching north near their earlier West Holywell Pit and running parallel to and on the east side of the by now renamed Blyth and Tyne Railway. This venture was very short lived closing in 1858. Fresh attempts to look for coal at their earlier pit proved futile and the West Holywell operation closed down in 1861. The royalty was then taken over by the Backworth Company and worked from underground by adjacent collieries.
In 1856 the Backworth ‘C’ Pit was sunk north of the ‘B’ Pit and alongside the wagonway to West Cramlington. This was intended to replace the ‘A’ Pit for coal drawing which was then relegated to a pumping shaft.
It was around this time that improvements were made to the method of haulage on the railway. The first recorded use of locomotives was in 1861 when loco number 3 was delivered. No details survive of the first two locomotives but it is possible they were in use before this date. Conversion of the track to wood sleepers and wrought iron rails of a modern pattern would likely have been around this time to take the weight of the locomotives. This work must have been done piecemeal as locomotives only worked on the pit branches and the haulage engines continued to be used on the main line. It is interesting to note that the West Cramlington line was never relaid with sleepers but kept its stone blocks until closure. Some of these could still be seen insitu until recently. Within a few years the conversion to railway was complete and tender locomotives Number 6 and 7 arrived in 1867 to haul trains all the way to the staiths. The first train was hauled by locomotive Number 6 driven by William Shotton, fireman, Thomas Ramsey with A. Errington as guard. The stationery engines were then dismantled and the engine houses demolished.
The pace of development slackened during the next 30 years with the only new sinkings being the Maude Pit next to the ‘A’ Pit in 1872, and the East Holywell Bates pit shafts west of the village of Holywell. These last two were reached by a long branch of over a mile which appears to have originally left the East Holywell branch before the junction with the old Church Pit running north in a straight line past the village and pit of East Holywell, but on the west side of the village. The line crossed the valley of the Seaton Burn on high culverted embankment, then swung in a big ‘S’ curve to reach the ‘C’ pit next to Milbourne Terrace. Half way round the ‘S’ bend the line passed another shaft of this mine, but this would appear to have been short lived, it being disused by the turn of the century. In fact it is doubtful if it ever had a rail outlet. By the turn of the century the route had changed. The start of this branch had been abandoned as far as North Row. Instead a line branched off in the East Holywell Pit yard and ran through a gap in North Row to rejoin the original line north to Bates. This then represented the point of maximum growth of the company. A company which possessed a large railway system with a fleet of 10 locomotives serving a number of collieries. The last 50 years had seen great social changes too as new settlements had sprung up to house the expanding workforce. New villages had been built at Backworth itself, East Holywell, Holywell and Shiremoor to the south. As the 19th century came to an end further changes were to come.
On October 14th 1881 strong winds blew the roof off the Maude pit engine house and the term ‘Windy Friday’ passed into local folklore. A few years later another unfortunate incident occurred when the heapstead of the ‘B’ Pit burned down. It was never rebuilt, though a washery known locally as the ‘Dolly Washer’ was later built on the site. In 1892 the West Cramlington Colliery was sold to the Cramlington Coal Company who built their own link from the High Pit. The link to the east coast main line was then removed and the Backworth line cut back to the ‘C’ Pit. In the following year, however, the Church Pit was reopened. This time the pit was given its own direct branch which was an extension of the short line which had once 9erved the old Duke and Duchess pits. This branch also served the Abbey Shot Factory built on the site of the Duke and Duchess pits, but little is known about this concern or how long it lasted.
It was probably around this time that many improvements were made to the alignment of the railway although some may date earlier. North of Murton Row there had long been a sharp curved section, which was a legacy of the old wooden wagonway and its wayleave. This was straightened out by building a short length of new line slightly to the east. The new Church Pit branch and East Holywell branches were regraded to cross the Blyth and Tyne and Cramlington lines on the level. The first locomotives are not thought to have worked at East Holywell until the 1890’s. A connecting curve was put in on the east side of the Blyth and Tyne Railway east of Earsdon Junction. Also the old tight curve at the junction with the Backworth line at the old Bell engine site was lifted and a much larger radius curve put in. This connected with the Backworth line at the level crossing over the road to Backworth village. New siding accommodation was also laid down just south of the allotment to hold both full and empty wagons. Over the years these were enlarged as traffic requirements grew. All these alterations were in place by the time of the second edition O.S. maps in 1897. By this time the old ‘C’ Pit was worked out and finally abandoned in 1895. The shafts were filled in and the site used for stone disposed. During the 1870s a brickworks also developed here.
In 1896 the workings of the Shiremoor Coal Company were absorbed into the company and this marked the start of another period of development. This company, formed in 1874, had opened the Blue Bell Pit just south of Shiremoor and had reopened the old Algernon Pit, to the south, for drainage purposes. The output from the Blue Bell was dispatched via the Blyth and Tyne Railway as it was situated next to this line. Upon taking over the Backworth Company were quick to connect it to their own railway system. This was done by building a new line running north from Murton Row but on the east side of the Blyth and Tyne with a connection into the Algernon Pit en-route. The Blue Bell Pit was not however long lived as manpower shortages during the First World War caused its closure in 1915 never to reopen. The Algernon Pit though was to last until nationalization.
Between 1905 and 1906 a new pit was sunk on the original Backworth site about 200 yds north of the ‘Maude’ Pit. This was the ‘Eccles’ named after a company director Richard Eccles, and was 1,440 ft dep making it the deepest pit in the Northumberland Coalfield. Coal production began here in 1907. The pit was not connected to the Maude as it was separated by a major fault and the two pits produced coal separately until closure. Also around this time the company gained control of the prosperous pit shaft at Benton Square to aid in the ventilation and drainage of the Algernon Pit. This pit was actually within the Killingworth royalty and some distance from any of the Backworth pits. It was never connected to the railway system. When this shaft was finally closed in the 1960’s the site was redeveloped as an industrial estate and the old pulley wheels were mounted on a plinth to mark the site.
The 1920’s saw further modernization when mechanised mining was introduced at the Maude, Eccles and Algernon pits displacing the pit ponies. In 1927 rope haulage and coal cutting machines were introduced. The Church Pit became the first to have electric winding and the chimney for the old steam boiler plant was demolished on November the 16th of that year. This modernization process was interrupted by a tragic explosion in 1928 which badly injured 11 men. Four later died from their injuries. Working conditions for the men were also improving. The groups first pit head baths were built at Backworth to serve the Maude and Eccles pits. No longer would men have to get bathed at home after a hard shift, in a tin bath in front of the fire.
Changes were happening at company level too. Early in 1932 Backworth Collieries and the East Holywell Coal Company were amalgamated and a new public company formed known as Backworth Collieries Limited. This also caused a change to the companies corporate image as hitherto its rolling stock had been run down with little attention paid to appearance. Now most of the rolling stock was p ainted bright red with Backworth or’ BC’ in large white lettering. By now the East Holywell Pit was known as the Fenwick Pit while the ‘C’ Pit to the north way was now known as the Bates Pit.
By 1930 the first face conveyors were in use but again progress was interrupted by another explosion which killed three men. Also during the 1930’s a new washery was built at Backworth to replace the old Dolly Washer on the site of the ‘B’ Pit which closed in 1940. A washer was also built at the Fenwick Pit around the same time. The new plant at Backworth incorporated a Barium plant to remove the mineral from the mine water. Previously this had been a source of trouble as it clogged the mine pumps and pipes. The new plant turned what had been a nuisance into a source of profit.
In 1943 the Maude Pit was idle for nine days after the two cages collided in the shaft causing structural damage. In 1946 the old vertical steam winder on the Maude Pit was replaced by a new electric winder housed in a new brick winding house. This work was done with very little interruption to production by building the new winder behind the old one. When complete the roof was removed from the old steam winder so that the ropes from the sheave wheels could reach the new drums. The old roofless structure was then left in position until the colliery closed. In 1948 the Eccles shaft was converted in a similar manner but this time the old winding house was then demolished.
On the 1st January 1947 the nations collieries were nationalized and the pits around Backworth became one production unit within Northern Division Number 7 (Southern Northumberland). Also during this time between 1948 and 1956 the screens of the Church Pit, which had ceased coal drawing during the 1930’s, found new use being used to process coal from opencast coal sites nearby. The old Blue Bell Colliery site was also used for storage and disposed of opencast coal during this period.
In 1951 a link was put in to the line from Burradon Colliery to the Blyth and Tyne Railway at Fisher Lane crossing north of the old ‘B’ Pit. This enabled coal from the collieries around Burradon to be sent to the Backworth washer and then shipped via the Backworth railway. This railway had originally been built between 1911 and 1912 to replace the old Brinton and Shields wagonway down to the Tyne. Built to main line standards it was fully signalled and worked by the NER. The NCB, however, also had running powers over this line. Future developments at Backworth would now all centre on this line.
At the Bates Pit coal was worked underground from other pits using this shaft for main access pumping, and ventilation only. The line serving it had already been chopped back to serve a coal depot at Bates Pit cottages. In 1957 this line was lifted north of the Fenwick Pit when the depot was closed.
In 1953 the staiths in Northumberland Dock west of Hayhole were closed and subsequently dismanted. These had originally been built for the West Cramlingtdn traffic, but after that pit was sold they were used for traffic from East Holywell.
The ageing pits were now becoming uneconomic and as the NCB began to cut back production due to falling markets the spotlight fell on Backworth. In 1960 The Maude was dosed, followed in 1966 by the Algernon. Further cost cutting was to follow when in 1967 the NCB decided to close the route to the river and to send all coal out by BR. New siding accommodation was laid down at Earsdon Junction and on 24th August 1969 the railway south of the Allotment level crossing was closed and track lifting began a year later. The bridge carrying the line over the BR line near Backworth station was not removed until 1973.
This left very little of the Backworth system, with Backworth being in effect the end of the Burradon line. All NCB traffic was now east to west, coal being sent to the new coal preparation plant at Wheetslade near Burradon where a large new coal depot had also been developed during the 1960’s to serve Tyneside household coal requirements. This traffic was hauled by Backworth locos and Backworth locos also brought return trains of stone for tipping on the old Backworth ‘C’ Pit heap.
In 1970 the Backworth Washery collapsed due to metal fatigue, killing a man. A new loading bunker was subsequently built and all coal was now taken to Wheetslade Washery. On August 31st 1973 Fenwick Pit closed and the railway east of Earsdon junction was lifted. After this closure the inconvenience to road traffic on the road into Backworth was eliminated by the building of a new curve. This ended the practice of having to haul wagons across the road at Bankfoot cabin and then propelling them, down past the weigh cabin. Backworth had long been a last outpost of steam haulage in the north east but in January 1976 diesels were introduced and the steam locos put into store to await scrapping or preservation.
In 1977 traffic to Wheetslade ended and the line to Burradon lifted. The line to the ‘C’ pit stone heap was also abandoned at this time and stone tipping commenced in a field at the start of the Burradon line, the track being slewed to enable this to commence.
The end was now in sight. Coal was being dispatched from Backworth on to BR to be burnt at Blyth power station but this was short lived as the Eccles Pit closed in May 1980 with all rail traffic ending on July 17th 1980. This brought not only the end of the Backworth railway but also the end of deep mining in Backworth unbroken over 167 years.