EARLY HISTORY OF ASHINGTON
Over one hundred members of the Ashington Townswomen’s Guild attended a meeting to listen to Mr. J. Knox, of Ashington, describe life in the old days in Ashington, based upon scattered printed records in newspapers, books and magazines, during May, 1940. Mr. Knox, for many years was a carpenter to the former rector of Bothal, and also on the Duke of Portland’s Estate.
Starting his historic talk at the old Fellem - Doon Colliery, Mr. Knox referred to an account given by a Mr. John Martin of the arrival of his parents at Fellem - Doon Pit in February, 1854. At that time there were only seven houses in Cross Row, and the Long Row was not completed. The east end house was converted into a school, and on Sundays the curate used to come from Bothal to conduct the services there. A pony and gig were kept at the colliery and sent every Sunday morning to Bothal to fetch the curate.
When John Martin was seven years old, he had to get up at seven every morning to bring the milk from Coneygarth Farm, which was kept by an old lady named Miss Humphrey. At nine years of age he secured a job on the screens at the colliery and picked stones from the coals, while exposed to all weathers, at a wage of one shilling per shift of eleven hours. At thirteen, he was a putter down the pit receiving three shillings per shift.
Mr. Knox, then mentioned that a man named Robert Brown was killed when he fell from the heapstead, and left a widow, son and daughter. The owners of the pit, to help the widow in her struggle to make ends meet, bought her a box mangle, this being a vast box filled with heavy stones operating on rollers and worked by hand. In this cumbersome apparatus washing was mangled, and the womenfolk in the neighbourhood brought their washed clothes to be mangled by the widow at a penny per basket. Mrs. Brown lived in the middle of Cross Row, and she was employed to sell powder to the miners at the magazine which was near the railway.
“There was also at the end of Cross Row a sort of communal bakery where people took a pail of coals and a penny to have their bread fadges baked,” Mr Knox said. “This was the popular bread in those days and I can remember as a boy seeing several of these communal ovens in colliery places about sixty-two years ago.”
“The sinking operations for Bothal Pit were started at a point now about the middle of Fourth Row,” Mr. Knox continued. “They got down a good distance, but found nothing but clay and water, so the work was abandoned and the shaft filled up again. Another attempt was made further east, and this time with more success. When coal was reached the owner provided beef and a barrel of beer so the people would have rare jollification.”
“In 1868, the first coal was drawn. Mr. Richardson, who lived at Backworth Hall, went down the pit to take stock, after which the late Mr. Jonathon Priestman bought out Mrs Henderson, who, with a Mr. Lee, was the joint owner of Fellem-Doon Pit. This I take it was the beginning of modern Ashington, which is famous for it’s great colliery enterprise, employing about 10,000 persons and supporting a population of between thirty and forty thousand.”
Mr. Knox went on to describe some of the disadvantages of living in what have been called the good old days, stating that in the year 1868, there were only two taps, one at each end of Fourth Row, and as the quantity of water was inadequate, it was not uncommon for people to have to wait two or three hours before getting their pails filled. On washing days, women went to the pit to get what was called “steam water,” from the condenser of the engine at the pithead. There were water springs at different places, but all too far off to be of much use.
Shopping facilities were not so good in those days either. The first large shop was built by a Mr. Gibson, where Bentinek House is situated in High Market now. Between that house and Gibson’s Garage there was in the old days a Glebe Plantation owned by the rector of Bothal. The nearest house on the east side of the town was a cottage where Shepherd’s is now situated at the Grand Corner. Further towards the east was Nixon’s Farm where the bus station is now. Next came Hirst Castle, a fortified farmhouse, the last tenant of which was a man named Pattison.
After mentioning that 200 tons a day was regarded as a big output for a pit like the old Fellem-Doon , Mr. Knox referred to the Ashington, which existed before the days of the pits and was situated near to Turnbull’s Market Gardens, and Douglas’s Farm on the road to Sheepwash. He noted that in 1826, the combined township of Ashington and “Shipwash,” had a population of only fifty. His investigations regarding the origin of the name of the town had led him to an old map, dated 1607, on which the spelling was given Assington.
Dealing with Sheepwash, Mr. Knox said that quarrying was a flourishing industry at the beginning of the 19th century, and traces were still to be seen on the quay wall from which the barges were loaded with grindstone etc.
About a quarter of a mile east of the quarry was St. Margaret's Well, famous for it’s health giving water. At Sheepwash was a stone bridge of four arches, the abutments of which could still be seen today on the north side. The Old Rectory and Glebe Farm were still to be seen, but he had not succeeded in finding the site of the old church said to have been at Sheepwash and from which Ashington Parish Church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, derived name. He thought that perhaps the only remaining relic of the ancient church was the old font now standing near to the entrance of Bothal Churchyard.