2. Coaly Tyne

Until The Clean Air Act 1956 all homes and factories had been heated solely by coal fires (although on the approach of the act, smokeless fuel, gas fires and oil-fired or gas central heating took over)

This meant that the only form of heating (and cooking) was an open hearth in all rooms, including bedrooms.

Obviously coal fires produce ash which fell through a slotted grate to be removed and disposed of. This dusty ash was messy to deal with so the whole process, with the re-laying and re-lighting was a dirty, tedious, daily business. It was possible to keep a fire alight overnight by using finely crushed coal known as dross with a sprinkling of water to make it burn slowly through lack of air.

The coal itself had to be delivered and stored. In my time coal merchants delivered sacks of coal by motor lorry; although I have seen horse-drawn wagons as late as the 1960s. Sometimes an enterprising seller would ‘hawk’ his coal around the streets shouting “COAL” to all who could hear. My grandfather claimed he had a parrot who imitated this cry so well they people rushed to their doors to find an empty street. The ‘coal- man’ unloaded 1 hundredweight (cwt) hessian sacks on his shoulders/back and tipped them into the coal-house/bunker/cellar. (1cwt = 50kg)

Miners and ex-miners were entitled to free coal which was dumped outside their homes by a lorry. This huge pile had to be moved by bucket and shovel and helpful neighbours got their share.

The smoke and sulphurous gases were particularly nasty. Town buildings were all blackened by it; fog turned into smog further damaging the buildings and the lungs of all who breathed it in.

Coal mines once dotted the landscape all over Northumberland and Durham, but by the end of the 20th century they were almost all gone. Deep mining is dangerous and expensive and the deeper the mines went, the more prone to flooding they became and since many went below the sea this is not really surprising.

Open-cast or surface mining still exists in quite large quantities in this area, but it does not produce enough to feed the appetites of the coal-powered power stations, so from being once the supplier to the world, the Tyne now imports coal from all over the world.


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