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Two Rooms And A View: 4 - Mysteries And Manipulation

Robert Owen, a son of South Shields, continues his life story by introducing his maternal relatives.

Unlike my paternal family who came from Ireland and Wales and has seafaring connections, my maternal family came from South West Durham and had a mining background. The River Gaunless is a little known river about 15 miles long. It runs from Copley to Bishop Auckland where it joins the River Wear. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Gaunless Valley was a mass of collieries, cokeworks, quarries and railways. It was here in the mining villages of Cockfield, Evenwood and West Auckland that my maternal family lived in the mid 19th Century.

Although coal was found near the surface in this area, many of the seams were faulted or thin. This resulted in numerous small family mines of the open-cast or drift type. Farmers combined agriculture with mining with often a mine in every other field. Wages were low, work could not be guaranteed and travel was difficult. This was until the opening of the Stanhope-Tyne railway in the 1834. Sinclair and Carr (1986) indicate that this brought a new mobility to the workers of the area. The population of Cockfield fell as families migrated to the other end of the railway line in South Shields. In later years, two of these were my maternal great-grandparents.

One of my great-grandparents who lived in South West Durham in the mid-nineteenth century was a William Chapman. He was born in 1840 and was a joiner when he married Anne Richardson, a daughter of a miner, at the Parish Church of Cockfield on 21st May 1859. Like many people of the time, the bride was unable to sign the marriage certificate and placed a cross for her signature. William and Anne Chapman had a son on 19th August 1861 who was also named William. His father, although a tradesman, must have found the mining industry financially attractive because by then he was working as a brakeman at the local colliery, while still living in Cockfield.

Twenty-four years later in 1885, the family had moved to South Shields and were living in Dock Street. Both father and son worked as miners. Tom Hutchinson (2000) in a recent publication, confirms that Chapman remained a common name in the village of Cockfield throughout the twentieth century. During World War One, George Chapman ran the village shop; a Bert Chapman worked at the local colliery in the early 1920's; a Will and another Bert Chapman played for Lands Cricket Club in 1933, and a John and Neville Chapman attended Cockfield School in 1949.

My maternal great grandfather had the popular name of John Smith, which did not help researching his background. From the 1881 Census returns, he was born in Norfolk in 1823, but had moved to the Evenwood area by 1856. It is possible that he married and his wife died whilst giving birth to their son Thomas in 1857. He re-married on 5th February 1861 at St Helen Auckland while living in Evenwood and working at the local colliery. His bride was Jane Franklin, the daughter of a labourer from Evenwood.

John and Jane Smith had two sons - Joseph and Robert - in the early 1860's. By 1866 they had moved to South Shields and were resident in Templetown, when their only daughter Jane Hannah, was born on 22nd August. After their daughter's birth, the Smith family moved to Ryhope, Sunderland where three more sons, John-James, David and William were born between 1871 and 1878. By 1881 the family had returned to South Shields and were living in Union Street, Tyne Dock. The father and the three oldest sons worked as miners, very likely at Harton Colliery. Four years later, the Smiths had moved again, this time to Florence Street about four hundred yards away.

John Smith's life seems to have been shrouded in mystery and manipulation. Nothing can be confirmed about his early life and on a Census Return, he claims to have a son born in 1857, yet a marriage certificate five years later indicates that he was a bachelor. On the same certificate, he claims he was 32 years of age, yet 20 years later, on the 1881 Census Return, he says he was 58 years of age. He undoubtedly had mixed abilities. He was clever enough to manipulate his age for his second marriage, chase higher wages at different collieries and apparently produce seven children over 20 years, yet he was unable to sign his own marriage certificate. Whatever his correct age, with six sons named Smith, one hundred and twenty years later, it is highly likely that I have numerous unknown second and third cousins by that name, living in South Shields.

One of John Smith's sons, Robert (b 1862), met a tragic death while working on Marsden Railway in July 1891. Sinclair and Carr (1986) indicate that he was trying to repair the engine's whistle when he climbed on to the cab of the engine when it was moving and was struck by a footbridge near Trow Rocks. A gravestone in St Peter's churchyard at Harton was 'Erected by a few of his fellow workers as a token of their respect.'

The homes of my great grandparents, the Chapmans in Cookfield and the Smiths in Evenwood were only two miles apart. It is very likely that the families knew each other and the men worked at the same colliery. Therefore in the late 1860's when the Smiths moved to South Shields - obviously attracted by the guaranteed work and higher wages at Harton Colliery -it was not surprising that the Chapmans followed shortly after. Whether they knew each other or not, the two families were united when William Chapman junior, married Jane Hannah Smith at St Mary's Church, Tyne Dock on 22nd August 1885, the bride choosing to get married on her nineteenth birthday, and only three days after the groom's twenty-fourth birthday. Six months later their first child, another William, was born on 29th January, 1886.

During the next ten years, William and Jane Chapman had five more children. Jack was born in 1887, Ethel in 1889, Robert in 1891, Mabel (my mother) in 1893 and Jane Edith (known as Ada) in 1895. Like many families of the time, when first married they lived in the next street to the bride's parents - Francis Street in the Deans, not far from Tyne Dock. Eight years later when Mabel was born they lived in nearby South Palmerston Street. Eventually the family obtained a colliery house in Double Row, right next to Harton Colliery.


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