When the Germans came to Dawdon
Contributed by Nancy Pickering and Ed.Mason

At the time of writing, Mrs Nancy Pickering is the Deputy Mayoress of South Tyneside and lives in South Shields. On a recent official visit to Seaham for the Mayor of Seaham's Civic Service at Christchurch Church, she revealed the proud connection she has with Seaham through her late mother, Annie Elliott.

Picture shows (right to left) Mayor of South Tyneside Counc. Bill Brady, Deputy Mayoress Mrs Nancy Pickering, Deputy Mayor Mrs Kathy Brown and Mayoress Mrs Mavis Brady.

Annie Elliott ( shown left at 73 years old) was born in South Shields in 1889, the eldest of William and Mary Jane Elliott's eleven children.
Most of Annie's school days were spent at Stanhope Road School in South Shields. In those days children left school at fourteen and the school catered for "senior" pupils as well as Infants and Juniors.

Life in the late 1800s was hard. Annie's father, William, was a miner. Regular employment was difficult to find in those days and miners had to travel from colliery to colliery as work determined. 

Nancy recalls how her mother never tired of telling her about the old days. For a while, around 1901, the Elliotts lived in Spittal near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At that time Annie was about twelve years old and had found work at a theatrical boarding house. 
Nancy isn't clear whether or not her mother was attending school regularly but schooling came second to work in those days. The boarding house, she recalled, was always full of performers, some of them famous like Hetty King who was renowned as a male impersonator. The work also had its problems, for Annie had to cross the desolate Newcastle Moor alone both going to and returning from work. Children would never be allowed to do that these days.
But of all the stories which Annie told, her favorite was about how the Germans came to Dawdon. Annie (shown left at about 15 years old) never gave a reason why she came to Seaham. Perhaps the pressures at home had become too much. The family was large and it must have been a struggle for her parents to make ends meet. At least if she, as the eldest, could find a job and make her own way in life it would help. 
What we do know is that Annie's mother was most concerned that she should be leaving home to make her own way in the world. But Annie was adamant that she would cope. She had experience of boarding house work and she felt certain that she could find a job in Seaham harbour. She set off with only a coarse apron and a change of underclothes in a tin trunk . These were her only possessions. At the time, Annie, would only be about 14 or 15 years. But she was determined and insisted that she would find work in Seaham and would manage to make ends meet. 

Annie was no stranger to work. At a very young age, she had been expected to miss school to "tak' up the bread". This was a common expression used in NE England at the turn of the century to describe the tedious task of kneading the dough (to make bread for the whole family of thirteen). So Nancy came to Seaham Harbour with only a few bare essentials. 
As it turned out she found a position as a servant at a large boarding house at No2, Back North Railway Street close to the docks. The area now is known as Hawthorn Square.

It was here that Annie met the Germans who had come to Dawdon to sink the new pit. 
Work had begun on August 26th 1899 on the site of Watsontown which was also known as the Blast Houses. The Marchioness of Londonderry cut the first sod of grass for theTheresa shaft and Viscount Castlereagh cut the first sod for the Castlereagh shaft.

The sinking of the pit turned out to be a remarkable feat of engineering. The Dawdon Colliery site was atop of the cliffs about one mile south of Seaham Harbour. The major problem expected in sinking the shafts was the torrents of water which poured through the Magnesian Limestone and Yellow Sand layers. Provision had been made to pump out up to 7000 gallons of water a minute. 

George Stevenson the "Father of Railways" had made his early reputation by producing pumps which overcame the water problems of pit sinkers 80 years earlier. But even modern-day pumps were helpless against the endless torrents which were experienced at Dawdon
The pits had reached a depth of only 361 feet when it became clear that the flow of water could not be handled by the pumps.Sinking was suspended on 28th December 1902. The German company Gebbhardt & Koenig of Nordhausen were contracted to freeze the ground through which the two shafts were being sunk and also the ground between them. This would allow the sinking to be carried out without pumping.

Freezing began in May 1903. The ground was frozen to a depth of 484 feet by inserting a ring of tubes into the earth and filling them with a freezing mixture of lime, ammonia and magnesium chloride. The process was so successful that when sinking started again in October 1905 it was necessary to use dynamite to blast through the frozen quicksand and limestone. By the spring of 1907 the main coal had been reached at a depth of 1321 feet.

Annie Elliott must have heard some fascinating stories from the Germans she waited on. She always referred to them as "sinkers" but they might well have been highly skilled "technicians" in todays terms. She often talked about having to wash their filthy clothes when they returned from work though.

What we do know is that Annie thoroughly enjoyed her time in Seaham Harbour. She quickly became a recognised figure in the local community and regularly attended the Methodist Chapel in Church Street. She became friendly with a miner called Billy Newcombe and his family (Let us know if you know of any descendants). Unfortunately, Billy was tragically killed at the pit. 
The Londonderry family who owned the pits was also a regular topic of her conversation. 
She recalled a tragedy at a Sunderland theatre whilst in Seaham. Apparently, a fire alarm went off and everyone rushed to the doors but they opened inwards. So great was rush, that a lot of people were crushed. Because of this tragedy it became law that public doors must open outwards.

Eventually Annie became Head Cook for the Maxwells, a prominent South Shields family. From there she married Alexander Clark of South Shields and settle down to give birth to a family of five.

When Annie died in 1974, she was 85 years old. 
Her daughter Nancy reflects: "She had always worked and was never idle. She brought us up to be honest and hard working too."

If you have a story to tell of life and times in Seaham, please contact us.

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