There aren’t many poets who can claim a rags-to-riches story quite like that of Thomas Wilson, who rose from a humble beginnings as a trapper-boy in a coal mine to become one of the North East’s greatest dialect poets and a highly successful businessman.
Thomas Wilson was born on December 14th, 1773 in Low Fell, a small, isolated village on the outskirts of Gateshead, then located in County Durham. The Gateshead Fell as it was then known was moorland, crossed by the main Durham to Newcastle highway and sparsely populated by tinkers, gypsies and squatters with only the occasional stone house breaking up the otherwise remote landscape. It was unsuitable for much more than the grazing of cattle and sheep, but as a place where coal had been mined since the 15th century, Gateshead Fell did not escape the attention of speculators and investors eager to cash in on the burgeoning demand for the abundant mineral. By the time Thomas Wilson was born at least five working pits had been established on the Fell.
in the footsteps of his pitman father, Thomas started working as a trapper-boy when
he was eight-years of age, most likely at the nearby Derwent Crook colliery. Employing young children, both boys and girls,
was not uncommon at this time; for not only was it a source of cheap labour for
the mine owners, but the smallness of children enabled them to easily navigate
the narrow, low passages underground, this being particularly useful in ‘putting’
loaded tubs or corves from the coal face to bank, where they would then be hauled
to the surface.
a trapper-boy, Thomas’ job would have been to sit by one of the ventilation
doors situated along the tram-way, opening and closing it for passing coal tubs.
Their shifts were generally 16 hours or more
and it was a job that could be dangerous.
‘Putters’, older boys responsible for moving the corves between the
coalface and bank, were paid by the tub so speed was essential. Trapper-boys too slow or too clumsy to avoid the
heavy tubs would regularly sustain broken limbs or head injuries from lumps of
falling coal; deaths were not uncommon. And,
of course, the threat of explosion was never far away. In July, 1819 at the nearby Sheriff Hill
Colliery, two men and thirty-three boys were killed in a deadly explosion of
firedamp. The youngest boy was only
seven years old.
“I would wish you to understand that the small education which a working young man gets at school only enables him to move in the right direction; the rest must all depend upon himself…”
By the age of 19, he had worked his way up from a trapper boy to a hewer, a job that entailed backbreaking work in the dark, cramped and dusty confines of the coalface. Because of the physical demands, his shift would have been reduced to eight or ten hours. And so it was, that during these years when he was not working or sleeping, he was able to attended a school in nearby Carter’s Well, run by a Samuel Barrass, himself a former pitman who had been forced to “gain his bread in another way” after a pit accident damaged one of his legs. There is little doubt that Thomas Wilson considered himself extremely lucky to avail himself of such an accomplished teacher. He attended day school when he was able but pursued his education primarily through Mr. Barrass’ evening class – after “the labour of the day.” In a speech to Members and Friends of the Gateshead Low Fell Reading Room in 1854, he spoke of his former teacher with a fond regard:
“He was a self-taught man … but a never-tiring industry being combined with his good natural abilities, he made himself a good mathematician, and an intelligent, well-informed man.”
Thomas would eventually leave the mines for
good to work as a teacher in the nearby village of Wrekenton. But in 1799, at the age of 26, he gave up
teaching for good in order to work with a Newcastle underwriter as a clerk. It was in 1803 that fortune smiled upon him
when he obtained a position at the corn merchants, Losh, Lubbin & Co, also in
Newcastle. He must have shown a remarkable
flair, for after just four years he was offered a partnership in a newly formed
company, Losh, Wilson and Bell.
Founded by William Losh, an entrepreneur and
philanthropist, the newly-formed company became the first outside of France to
use what was called the Leblanc process for the manufacture of alkali, also
known as soda ash; a vital chemical used in the making of glass, bleach, soap
and chlorine. The factory was built on
the site of the former Walker Colliery on the north bank of the River Tyne, where
a briny burn provided the essential salt for the manufacture of the alkali. It eventually became a leading producer of the
chemical. Their success subsequently led
to a new business venture with the opening of the Walker Ironworks on land next
to the factory. Over the succeeding
decade, both businesses would grow to become industrial giants.
Thomas Wilson married in 1810 and built a new home, aptly named Fell House, on the site of his parent’s cottage in Low Fell. He eventually made his way into local politics and served as an alderman on Gateshead council for many years.
He began to write poetry in the 1820’s, the
most acclaimed of which, The Pitman’s Pay,
was first published in three sections between 1826 and 1830 in Mitchell’s
Magazine. An anthology of his work, The Pitman’s Pay and Other Poems, was
published in 1843 by William Douglas of Gateshead.
The Pitman’s Pay relates life in a pit-village and features some
colourful characters, no doubt based on actual of Low Fell figures. It was obviously a subject with which Thomas
would have been all too familiar and he tells his rich story over 344 verses in
remarkable detail. Some of the terms used
are now long forgotten, such as his reference to Gaudy Days for example, which he defines as follows:
“There are certain days of
the year when the young men and lads refuse to work and insist on a “Gaudy
Day”: for instance, the first morning they hear a cuckoo and when the turnips
and peas are at maturity. They call
these periods “A Cuckoo Mornin’,”, “A Tormit (Turnip) Mornin’,” and a “Pea
Mornin’.” At such times they frequently
adjourn to a neighbouring public house, where they enjoy themselves during a
good part of the day.”
The poem was extremely popular and widely
read. It was also translated into a play
and performed at theatres throughout the North East.
Thomas Wilson never forgot his humble beginnings nor the education that had enabled him to find a better life away from the daily drudgery and dangers of the coal mine. He generously donated to local schools and churches and in 1841 built a school and reading room in Low Fell (left).
Throughout his life he lectured and preached, praising the benefits of a good education, while urging working-class parents to encourage their children to read books and expand their knowledge in order to escape the poverty in which many found themselves.
Thomas Wilson resided at Low Fell House until
his death in 1858 at the age of 85. Some
years earlier, he had reminded an audience of his devotion to education in a
speech presented by his son:
I might be showing me age, but I’m still gannen strong. I mean, I was a hundred and sixty-nine yors old last month. Noo that’s a canny age and I’m proud to say, I’m the owldest of the bunch roond here. That modern winky-wonky thing down by the Spillers wharf calls me an ‘old relic’, but I divvent care. I’d like to see him carry two trains and a couple of double-decker buses ower the river at the same time!
I was designed by Robert Stephenson, an outstanding engineer who did a champion job with me. Mind you, he got his brains from his dad, George. Noo there was a clever bloke. Invented the forst miner’s safety lamp he did, although most people will tell you that it was invented by some gadgie called Sor Humphrey Davy. Whey, I’ve never come across a pitman by the name of Humphrey, let alone one that was a “Sor”! Wor George on the other hand, worked at a pit up in Northumberland for a canny while, though he was originally from Wylam. So, he knew what was gannen on underground. If it hadn’t been for some toffee-nosed MP’s in London, who complained that he wasn’t clever enough to make such an important invention, speaking in Northumbrian as he did like, he would have won the two thoosand-poond prize they was offering and not Sor Humphrey. But for George, it was nowt but a minor setback. Of course, wor man would gan on to bigger and better things, and eventually outshine his rival.
I’m very proud of the fact that Queen Victoria horself came to christen me. She was on her way up to Balmoral in Scotland when they stopped hor train on me upper deck, halfway across the river. It was raining, and someone opened a window so she could do the official opening. I was told afterwards that the mayors of Newcastle and Gateshead were expecting hor for a slice of ‘Singin’ Hinny’ and a cup of tea.
But she didn’t stop, and more than a few people were very upset by Her Majesty’s seemingly bad manners. (Well, having gan to all that trouble to bake a cake for hor, you would be, wouldn’t you?) Anyway, the coonsil sent Buckingham Palace a bill for the party. They never paid it of course but as a token of hor esteem, Hor Royal Highness did bequeath the City of Newcastle a fine gift in hor will. A pair of hor best knickers!
People, carriages and horse-carts would cross back and forth all day long, preferring my nice level roadway instead of having to struggle up and down the steep lonnens on either bank. And then they took the owld stone bridge away and I was the only one left. For a while at least, until they started building more and more bridges and spoiled my view. Well, I didn’t mind the little Swing Bridge, he wasn’t nay bother and I used to love watching him swing open and close as the ships went by. And there used to be some ships, let me tell you. There were colliers, coming and going all day long to the big staithes at Derwenthaugh. And then there were the warships from Armstrong’s yard at Elswick, with muckle big guns and their sailors, smartly dressed in white uniforms, lined up along the decks. Eee, that was a sight to see.
Of course, it’s all very quiet noo and though I sometimes miss the hustle and bustle of the owld days, I think I like the peace and quiet. I certainly don’t miss all the black smoke and soot that was belched out of the trains and ships. Whey man, it’d get all ower me bonny painted girders. And as for me beautiful arches, whey they’d end up looking like the walls of a midden.
I’m a lot cleaner noo and I’ve had a bit of work done over the last couple of yors: replacement beams and more than a few timbers, you knaa, the usual things that have to be seen to as we get owlder. Aye, and they’ve also lightened me load by putting in what they call, a ‘one-way system’. I’ve got to tell you, hinny, it feels much better, but don’t say nowt to that googly-eyed, little gob down-river. I’ll never hear the last of it!