War on the Banks of the Tyne

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Digging for Victory


Whilst the men in the armed forces fought for their country abroad, at home another  battle was underway – to supply the needs of a blockaded country.

Britain relied heavily on coal to power industry and transport, produce gas and electricity,  and  keep the home fires burning, but by  the end of 1943 over 36,000 miners had left the coal industry to join the armed forces and Britain had only 3 weeks’ supply  in reserve.

Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service in the wartime coalition government stepped in to instigate National Service employment in the mines. Upon being called up, men could volunteer to go into the mines as an alternative to the armed forces and around half the required miners were recruited this way. The other half was selected by ballot, being conscripted into the pits rather than the services.  From then until the end of the war 1 in 10 men who were called up were required to work in the mines. These conscripts became known as Bevin Boys.

Nearly 48,000 18-25 year-olds performed this vital but largely unrecognized service in the mines and many of them were not released until 1948.

Lambley Pit. Painted by an officer from Featherstone POW Camp who signed himself simply, Schmitt.

Although coal was vital to the war effort, getting essential supplies to the smaller private mines of the area could be a problem. The minute book of the union meeting at Ventner’s  records repeated requests for soap to be issued more often. At the time it was heavily rationed and certainly insufficient for the essential daily bath, to say nothing of getting the pit clothing clean. Timber for props was also in short supply and, according to numerous comments in the minutes, the machinery was old and worn out. It was also proving difficult to get staples to put in tubs for the putters to hang their tags on. The men were paid for the coal bearing their tag – no tag- no pay.

In the South Tyne area there were 21 pits active during this period employing around 750 men.




Clarghyll Drift






Ayle East Drift




Bardon Mill





Burnhouse 1



Woodhouse Drift



Crystal Well Drift



Featherstone No.5   




Gilsland and Midgeholm  








Gap Shields  



Fell End






Ventners (1947)  



Robin Rock Drift



Henshaw Drift  



Dene House drift



Henshaw (1947)










At the start of World War II  over 1 million people worked on the land. In spite of this Britain needed to import 70% of its food  including more half of its meat, 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 90% of its cereals.  With the advent of German attacks on merchant shipping it was clear that, if the British people were to survive, they must produce more food. Farms were on the front line and farmers rose to the challenge to the extent that, five years later, domestic food production had almost doubled.

Farmers were expected to plough up and plant food crops in fields which before had only provided grazing for stock. At Kellah farm there was a rotation.  

Every animal was registered and careful records of all production had to be kept. Ministry of Agriculture inspectors could visit the farms at any time. Effectively, farms had been requisitioned for the war effort.

“We did everything with the horses. Ploughing, working the land, cutting the hay, turning the hay –it was  all loose and built into pikes then led in with the horse and bogie and a lot of it was forked onto lofts as well as into the barns.” Coulson Teasdale

With many young men away fighting, young women were recruited into the Women’s Land Army to take their place. Land Girls worked on many local farms and at the end of the war further assistance was offered across the whole of west Northumberland by the POWs of Featherstone Park  camp.

J.M. Clark inspecting a pig for the Ministry of War– Dig for Victory campaign.

Coulson Teasdale on his father’s farm at Kellah.

Land Army badge owned by Josie Benson

J.M. Clark inspecting  ducks for the Ministry of War

Road Stone

Producers of high quality road-stone, the quarries on the whin sill at Greenhead and Cawfields supplied materials for RAF aerodromes throughout the war but their location on the Roman Wall proved controversial.

In July and August 1943 Rome was bombed by the allies. This prompted the following letter to The Times.

While the Second Great War is raging all over the world, the people of Northumberland are “fighting” over Hadrian’s Wall, relic of the Roman occupation of Britain.

It is a battle between quarry owners, now backed by a district council, and antiquaries, people who hope to see the wall restored and preserved.

The quarry owners are fighting every inch of the way against an order issued by the Ministry of Works compelling them to cease excavations which are said to be undermining the ancient battlements.

Haltwhistle Rural council are backing the quarry owners, who contend that the whinstone they are excavating near the wall is more important to the war effort against Hitler than the preservation of an ancient monument.

Mr. Dixon Blair, eighty-year-old father of northern antiquaries has been advocating the preservation of Hadrian’s Wall since he was a schoolboy.

“Near the quarries,” Mr. Blair told the “Daily Mirror” yesterday, “the wall has been reduced more or less to rubble. It is the finest Roman monument in the world outside Italy itself”.

Daily Mirror 15/12/43




For the remainder of 1943 and throughout 1944 while the war raged, the national press was much exercised by the virulent controversy surrounding the Greenhead and Cawfields quarries. Letters of increasing passion and articles of varying accuracy filled the columns of newspapers across the land. Many local writers joined in.




Sir,---- Why should we weep for Rome when the most splendid Roman monument in this country, Hadrian’s Wall, is daily quarried for road metal?

Yours faithfully,

G.O. Hoskins

12, Maunsel Street, S.W.1

The Times 27/8/43

In July and August 1943 Rome was bombed by the allies. This prompted the following letter to The Times.


...the quarries have striven to produce in record time the essential road material for the building of several RAF stations and to that end the hauliers, working under many crippling restrictions, have strained every nerve to keep their vehicles in a fit condition to cope with work of such national importance.

Surely those concerned deserve a little better thanks than to find themselves deprived of their means of livelihood and the country deprived of the help it needs because of a supposed injury to a largely non-existent ancient monument.



Newcastle Journal 3/1/44

Eventually, agitation in the House of Commons brought action from a Government Minister who paid a fact-finding – and placatory –visit to Haltwhistle. The issue did not go away however but cropped up periodically in the following decades until the closure of Walltown Quarry in 1976

Harold Hargraves  began work at Midgeholm Pit aged 17.

“ I started working on the banks at what we called the Bottoms. My job was emptying coal and stones tubs. I had to push the tubs into the tipplers. There were three of us and we were kept going along with a hauler driver and a weightman. Stone tubs came out of the west drift and had to be tipped over the large heap.”

After an eight week training course in Ashington to prepare him for underground work, Harold returned to the Midgeholm pit to work with an older man in the north drift taking supplies of props, planks and steel girders to the coal face. After learning to drive a hauler in the west drift Harold was transferred back to the north drift to train for the coal face.

“I was put on night shift to go with a man called Andrew Ruddick, an experienced miner. We were brushing, taking back canch, taking stone down which was to prepare and drill under, to fire down. It was a driveway of about nine feet wide and eight foot high. The stone, after being fired down, had to be stowed underneath both sides of the gateway. After that I worked with different men heightening gateways and driveways.”

In 1940 the 160 men of Midgeholm colliery produced 60,000tons of coal

Harold continued as a miner, working with his father in the King Pit at Midgeholm and then at Lambley, Alston and Bardon Mill until its closure in 1973.

The quarrymen who left their work to join the forces were replaced in many cases by other members of their families and, for the first time, women were used to drive the lorries, both on the quarry floor and down the treacherously steep Glenwhelt Bank into Greenhead village.

The Ariel Flight at Greenhead  which delivered road-stone directly from the quarry at Walltown to the railway trucks at Greenhead siding on the Newcastle Carlisle line had long been rendered redundant by the success of road haulage. During the war when petrol was scarce or unavailable

it was reinstated. This picture shows the Ariel Flight in earlier days.

“The first year we ploughed it out and grew oats. The second year it was ploughed and worked fine and grew potatoes and turnips. The third year it was ploughed and re-sown with oats under-sown with seed grass. After you cut the oats off the grass was there.” Coulson Teasdale.