Shipping out from Shildon

Shildon view
Shildon had been a 170-strong community in the mid 1800s, but by the time this picture was taken in the early 20th Century, most of the buildings were derelict.

After more than 100 years of abandonment, work was completed in 2010 on conserving the remains of Shildon Engine House near Blanchland, symbol of the lead mining industry which once dominated the North Pennines landscape.

As part of the AONB Partnership's Living North Pennines project, the Engine House was cleared of the vegetation that was threaded through its stones, walls that had tumbled inwards were secured again with lime mortar, and Shildon's story is going to be brought to life with explanatory panels and other information.

Two hundred years ago the Engine House was brand new, built to house a mighty water pump which kept the lead mines below clear of water.

Shildon plan
This mid-1800s plan shows how many households there were at Shildon.

In the first half of the 1800s Shildon was a thriving community of around 170 people, busier than nearby Blanchland. The census returns of the following decades show a gradual decline in population as cheaper imported lead forced the local companies out of business and the miners moved on.

These are just the bald statistics, but a collection of letters written between a Shildon mother and her children who emigrated half way around the world to find work give a fascinating insight into the everyday lives of the people who once lived in the shadow of the Engine House.

Mary Gibson
Mary James eloped from Shildon with Ralph Gibson to marry and start a new life in Australia in 1858.

The letters belong to the Australian relatives of Dorothy Soulsby, whose grandfather returned 'home' to Shildon in 1908, the place he knew his own grandparents had left decades earlier. Little did he know when he died in 1954 that he'd come back to the wrong Shildon! He'd settled in the Shildon near Bishop Auckland, and it wasn't until Dorothy was researching her family history that she discovered his mistake and found her ancestors actually came from Blanchland.

The letters which to'd and fro'd across the globe span around 30 years of family history, and telling lines chart the slow death of lead mining and the breaking apart of the close-knit communities it supported.

At the time the letters begin, Ralph Gibson and Mary James - Dorothy's great-great grandparents - had eloped to Australia from Shildon, Blanchland to be part of the Ballarat Gold Rush in 1858. Mary's brother William went with them, leaving their mother Susanna James living alone in Shildon. The sailing from Liverpool to Melbourne was a three-month odyssey, and of course it took the same length of time for letters to span the world, so the news and gossip of three or four months had to be condensed into one lengthy report.

In one of the earliest of the letters to Australia, dated April 4th 1859, Susanna James is at pains to reassure her son William that she is managing quite well back home in Shildon: "I have three lodgers at present. They bring me 4 shillings (20p) per week and I have 2/6d (12.5p) parish money so you can see I have not taken any hurt as yet and I have killed my pig... I intend to sell it in bacon."

William doesn't stay in Australia long though; in June Susanna is writing: "We all wonder at William coming home so soon as we think he has stayed too little time to do well for himself..." but by July of that year he is back in Shildon, living with his mother and working for Derwent Lead Mines with brother George, doing "masters' work at 3d per day each..."

Ralph Gibson
The man who whisked Mary away... Ralph Gibson.

By October the following year, William writes to his sister saying they are comfortable, but he goes on to talk about the high price of food: "Butcher meat has never been known to be as dear as it is this year. Since the Battle of Waterloo it is now 8d a pound..." With 10d for mutton, a shilling for lamb and flour at a whopping two shillings a stone, the two men's salaries must have been stretched. The cold Northumbrian winters too are a source of complaint: "last winter... was so cold I could almost come out again to the sunny shores of Victoria to feel the hot winds blowing and smell the peppermint bush if there was any prospect of doing better there than when I was out before."

The reason William James returns from Australia is not clear; perhaps it was simply homesickness. He signs his letter: "Shildon, near Blanchland, Northumberland, Old England (sweet home)" - probably not the words of a fearless adventurer!

William was not the only emigrant who came home; another relative writes: "John Readshaw and son went from Ramshaw to America and were only away three months until they arrived back home again. They no sooner land in America than they were only given nine days' notice either to take up arms and fight or quit the place, so they turned right round and came home to old England..." - so it looks as though some recent arrivals to The Land of the Free had a stark choice during the Civil War.

For the lead mining families of Shildon life could be hard - and sickness and death were never far away. In December 1860 a relative writes: "...we have scarlet fever here at Shildon at present and three children have died of it..." Six months later scarlet fever is said to be "raging", "...and lots of little children have died."

Tamar Lucas and her family
Tamar Lucas - one of Susannah James' daughters and sister to Mary - and her young family. Dorothy Soulsby's grandfather is on the far left of the picture.

But the hardships of daily life - and the parting of families spread out across the world - were made bearable for many by a strong religious belief, most notably in Methodism. In February 1862 another Shildon relative Robert Sparke writes: "Jesus Christ... is the rock I am building on. The Lord is reviving His work in Weardale. There has been a great number converted this month among both Wesleyans and Primitives and I hope the work will not stop till every soul is converted in England and Australia and in all the World..."

The conservation of the Engine House in 2010

William may have come back, but the trend was to leave an ailing industry at Shildon and find work elsewhere. In 1881 William James writes: "There has been great poverty in Weardale on account of part of the mines being stopped working."

Sadly the letters come to an abrupt end just two years later with word from his sister Thomasine that William James has died. He had 'violently sprained' his leg and damaged the artery in his right thigh by lifting a heavy weight at work. Ironically William had married and moved to New Shildon - the village near Bishop Auckland - where his wife of two years had given birth to daughter Annie but died herself just a few days later.

After a spell being converted to flats, Shildon Engine House became derelict at the turn of the 1900s. But now its rescued remains will stand as a reminder of the lives of Susanna James, her children, and the hundreds of others who once lived there.