Childhood in an Ironstone Mining Community by Pat Wetherell

Travellers heading south east from Guisborough on the moor road to Whitby will be familiar with the steep rise known as Birk Brow. Not far from the foot of Birk Brow lie the two settlements of Charltons and Margrove Park. Between these two former mining villages stands the Margrove Park Heritage Centre, opened in 1990, a building that for more than a century had been the local school. This school and its children are the focus of Pat Wetherell’s study.

If you look for the villages of Charltons and Margrove Park on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map, surveyed in the 1850s, you will search in vain. At that time this area was open farmland as it had been for centuries. Things began to change with the opening of the Aysdale Gate ironstone mine in 1863. Spa Mine and Spa Wood Mine quickly followed. With an influx of newcomers coming to work underground the Stanghow Iron Company built the village of Margrove Park in 1873. William Charlton then began building houses for the miners and their families at what is now called Charltons. With a sudden increase population it’s hardly surprising that in 1877 the Magra Park Board School was opened.

The author has re-created life at school for the children of Charltons and Margrove Park through sources such as the minutes of the Local Board, the log books of the Magra Park Board School, school board account books and the memories of former pupils. Facts and figures abound. We learn how the school was once run by just the head teacher and a 14 year old monitor, how long it was closed during a typhoid outbreak, and what happened when the School Board heard about the Head’s decision to close the school early for the Christmas holidays. Brambling was a cause of absenteeism, and since this essay is augmented by memories of former pupils, we learn about the whole process of brambling from start to finish. The severe winter of 1947 is similarly brought to life by local recollections. The possibilities for children wanting to go on to secondary education are analysed as the problems created by deprivation and epidemic diseases. Until school fees were abolished in 1891, some parents struggled to pay and the Head Teacher complained of the difficulty of collecting the weekly “pence”. Fluctuations in the ironstone trade could mean money problems for the family home and the General Strike of 1926 resulted in visits to the soup kitchen for some. Measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria, smallpox and chicken pox were common and occasionally children were said to have “itch”.

A good deal is made of children’s lives outside school. What the children might regard as treats in the holidays would hardly be considered as such today. Watching the men and boys coming out of the mines at the end of a shift is described in detail: a lot could happen that would please or amuse the onlookers. The annual Sunday School trip to Redcar was something to look forward to. In towns like Middlesbrough or Stockton the children might travel on a horse-drawn coal cart, but the youngsters of Charltons, being the offspring of iron miners, travelled in mine wagons pulled by horses from the mine stables. On Yearby Bank, they would get out and walk to make things easier for the horses. Almost all the village children attended Sunday School and there was the Band of Hope and the Salvation Army as well. The Salvation Army sometimes organised children’s competitions and gave out presents. At certain times of the year there were lots of ways that a child could earn a few pennies and some of these are recounted in this essay. There was always a crowd of children to watch the pig-killing, in expectation of treats, and helping to take a farmer’s horse to the blacksmith in Stanghow was a delight. The author relates tales of children riding bogies, sniggling fish, flying kites or walking to Guisborough fair if they had a penny or two to spend.

Clothing, home remedies, domestic life: all are portrayed. Pat Wetherell concludes by skilfully bringing together the various threads of life in an East Cleveland mining community amid the changing balance between home and school. She brings out the distinctiveness of a small mining village and the experiences it offered to its children through the late 19th century and throughout much of the 20th century.