The life of John Ellis Watson is another classic tale from the period of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. We came across him when we were researching the life of his neighbour Elizabeth Morland ‘Railway Proprietor’ living at Town End in Ravenstonedale village. John is listed in the 1861 census as a boarder with a farming family, living next door to Elizabeth in Ravenstonedale. He was 34 at the time and his place of birth was Lamesl[e]y in County Durham (now part of Gateshead). His occupation is given as ‘Railway Agent’.
The opening of the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway in 1861 generated plenty of jobs along its length. Ravenstonedale Railway Station was actually in nearby Newbiggin and we imagine that John must have been working there as an agent drumming up local goods business for the railway company. There was apparently a large goods shed and also a coal depot at the station, clearly visible on the 1898 OS 25″ map of the area and in the photograph below.
Historic England have published an interesting online article about railway goods sheds and in it, they describe the many different activities and roles going on inside a large Victorian city centre railway goods shed:
“Such establishments would operate 24 hours a day, and often employed hundreds of men, including those carrying out clerical work in the offices and those loading and unloading wagons within the shed, which involved a high degree of physical labour, even with the advent of innovations such as conveyor belts. But many other occupations were represented: capstanmen, responsible for moving the wagons within the shed; men operating the hydraulic cranes and hoists; van setters, who moved the delivery vans within the depot; delivery men (carmen) and young boys (vanguards) assisting them, responsible for operating the extensive collection and delivery services within towns and cities; and a host of other functions including security (watchmen), stablemen to look after the horses, and teams of agents and canvassers to seek out business from local firms.”
From The Railway Goods Shed and Warehouse Historic England p4-6
It’s unlikely that the goods shed and coal depot at Ravenstonedale was this busy, but securing local business for the railway was economically important especially in its first few years of operation. The opportunity to supply good quality coal from collieries in the North-East to domestic users in Westmorland would have been seen as a major selling point to investors, and the carriage of goods for businesses from far and near was eagerly sought by the railway companies.
John Watson is no longer in Ravenstonedale when the next census takes place in 1871, indeed we believe he ended up in Goole and died there in 1868 aged just 41. Goole at the time was a major coal port linked by railways inland. We wondered if coal was what brought John to Ravenstonedale and research into his early life seemed to confirm that suspicion. His birthplace – the village of Chowdean in the township of Lamersley – was in the heart of the vast North-East coal field. We find him aged just 14 years old in the 1841 census working as a ‘Coal Miner’ alongside his 40-year-old father John and his three brothers: Matthew (15); James (12) and Thomas (11).
The employment of children underground in coal mines has long been considered one of the cruellest aspects of the industrialisation of Britain. Contemporary accounts and images have fuelled our horror at the thought of children being forced to labour in the dark, wet, narrow shafts of nineteenth century coal mines.
As a member of a large coal mining family, John was probably in a much better position than some. In his 1995 Sheffield University PhD thesis ‘Aspects of the employment of children in the British coal-mining industry.
1800- 1872′, John Kirkby argues that much of the Victorian outrage at child labour was exaggerated for political and moral purposes and that those working with family members were likely to be well-fed and relatively well-treated as important contributors to the family economy.
“Coal mining was predominantly a family affair: most of the children working in British coal mines were the male children of colliers and the majority of those children were employed by their fathers or brothers. The size of mining households remained large throughout the nineteenth century. The rate of occupation succession was, concomitantly, very high: most sons of miners became miners themselves. The labour of children was indispensable to the production process and formed an essential input to the welfare of the household. In his 1842 report on Bradford and Leeds collieries, William Wood noted: ‘Children who have been engaged in mining operations almost universally become colliers or miners; and there are, probably, no colliers who have not worked in the mines as children'” Kirkby 1995 p53
Aged 14, John was probably working as a ‘Putter’ hauling wagons of coal which his father and older siblings had hand hewn from the coal face. This was a job often held up as particularly brutal – dragging or pushing heavy loads along narrow, dark tunnels for hours on end. His younger brothers may have operated ventilation doors in the tunnels, an important job which ensured that explosive gases didn’t build up to dangerous levels
Luckily for John, the coal seams of the collieries he worked in were much bigger than those of the Lancashire and West Yorkshire coal fields often used to illustrate contemporary accounts.
“In the North-East, for example, where seams averaged between four to five feet, underground haulage was performed by older workers and by miniature horses and ponies. The viewer at South Hetton, in Durham, stated: ‘No seam below from two and a half to three feet would pay for working in this or the next county [Northumberland]’.”
Kirkby 1995 p170
This is born out in the 1851 census where John aged 23 and now with nine brothers and sisters, is recorded as working as a ‘Putter’ alongside a younger brother while two other brothers and his father are recorded as ‘Hewers’. John was relatively old to be a Putter, most became Hewers around 18 to 20 years old but the high seams and the fact that Hewers usually produced coal faster than the Putters could haul it away meant the 3:2 ratio was probably the most efficient one for this particular family unit.
We don’t know which mines the Watson family worked down but the area is full of pits. From the birthplaces of the various children we see that the family moved around a bit, from John senior’s birthplace in Chester-le-Street to Lamesley, to Gateshead, then finally back to Lamesley. The village they lived in, Chowdean, was near to Allerdene Colliery also known as Ravensworth Shop Colliery. This seems to have been part of the larger Team Colliery opened in 1726, with Team Colliery (Betty Pit) also nearby, both linked by the Team Colliery Wagon Way which ended up at the huge Norwood Coke Works on the outskirts of Gateshead. Chowdean Bank Colliery was opened in 1746 but may have been closed by the time John and his family were living there.
We’ll never know how John came across the opportunity to step away from his family’s coal mining life but it’s probably not too much of a stretch to imagine him eagerly extolling the virtues of the coal that his family was helping to extract in far away Lamesley. The Watsons continued as coal miners in Lamesley after he’d left for Westmorland, 60 year old John senior plus two sons appear in the 1871 census. After that it’s likely that John senior died and later censuses show that family members dispersed to other colliery villages to set up their own households.
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