Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Dickens on Geordies
A DAY WITH GEORDIE.
To a south-countryman, and especially to a Londoner, the change of scene and life presented after a leap of three hundred miles in a line due north is so striking that he, may be almost pardoned for a temporary doubt if he be in one and the same land. We may be accustomed to the gloom and the fogs of our metropolis, and we may vaunt that nothing can beat them, but in Geordie's country—that is to say, the great coal country of
North Britain— we find ourselves lost in a griminess and a gloom of equal intensity but of a totally distinct genus. We may be familiar with the bewildering twists and turns of the Kentish or the Cornish dialect, and we may doubt if our native language can be elsewhere so mangled out of recognition, but the vilest French patois is intelligible compared with the tongue spoken by Geordie. As for manners and customs, superstitions and beliefs, prejudices and opinions—those of Geordie's country are as distinct from those of our country, as are the customs of the Choctaw Indians from those of the New Yorkers.
Long before we get into Geordie's country we are prepared for it. Grimy towns, grimy footpaths, grimy individuals, are apparent miles away from the nearest pit; the trains we pass are mineral trains; the talk is of ships, and outputs, and coal prices; the fields get more and more sickly in colour, the trees are more stunted, the very sky seems to reflect the hue of the gigantic wealth of the earth. We gape at the first pit noticeable, and marvel at its huge "slag banks," its ever turning wheels, its ever vomiting chimneys; then another and another are passed, and by the time we pull up at the Durham station, - and gaze far beyond the majestic towers and battlements of Cuthbert's cathedral and Norman William's castle into a dim region of half-night, they are as familiar objects to us as the farmhouses of our south-country roads.
Before we penetrate to Geordie's working sphere, let us look at Geordie himself, for he is a creation per se and well worthy of study.
The popular portrait of Geordie gives us a big, stalwart fellow, begrimed with dirt from morn to night, only a step removed from the animals as to his tastes and ideas, very drunken and very brutal, working like a galley-slave when he does work, and spending his earnings with reckless prodigality.
There is truth in this, of course—a little more truth than there is in the popular idea of the British sailor who is always dancing hornpipes clad in a straw hat and white trousers, drinking grog, singing Dibdin's songs, and shivering his timbers —but not very much more. The picture may pass very well for the Geordie of half a century since, but the Geordie of to-day is as different as is Ironclad Jack of to-day from Wooden-Wall Jack of Nelson's era.
In nine cases out of ten Geordie is a small man. The first Geordies may have been typical northern giants, but the work of generations in a bad atmosphere, in a cramped position, has wiitten its tale in the physique of the modern Geordie. He very rarely attains a height over five feet six inches, and although his " upper works " are well developed, and although he has not an ounce of superfluous flesh upon his iron muscles, his legs are small and shapeless ; and, when washed and dressed in above-ground clothes, he has the appearance of a man whose life is sedentary in the extreme.
Geordie is certainly a grimy being during business hours—that is to say, during eight hours of five days of the week, but his very first move upon his arrival at home in the "row" is to the washing-tub, and, just as he is a peculiar individual generally speaking, so is his washing method peculiar. Face, neck, front of body, arms, and legs, are scraped as clean as soap-and-water and brush can make them, but upon no account does he touch his back or under his arms, as a firm belief still obtains that weakness is the sure result of so doing. Similarly, Geordie's notion of the attitude of repose is peculiar, as one may see when passing through a colliery row on a Sunday. Chairs are prominent articles of furniture in his cottage, but he only uses them at meal-times or upon state occasions. When he smokes his pipe of peace, or indulges in a gossip, he squats on his heels, not in the Japanese fashion, but with his knees under his chin, and in this, to us, painful attitude he can remain for an hour without stirring ; the spectacle of a row of men, with unnaturally pallid faces, thus squatting, being laughable in the extreme.
A colliery row is as entirely distinct in appearance and constitution from any other collection of cottages, as is a Belgravian terrace from a suburban villa road, and the visitor is at once impressed with the fact that he is amongst a peculiar people. If he enters one cottage, he sees an exact replica of every other pitman's cottage in the neighbourhood. The first object which meets the eye is the. enormous bed; not a trumpery affair of cheap veneer made only to be looked at, but a well-built, solid four-poster bed, amply provided with curtains and pillows and coverings, and, of course, with the inevitable antimacassar. In front of the bed are invariably stationed, like sentinels, two or three wooden chairs, each with its proper antimacassar. Upon one side stands a sort of chiffonier, decorated with bits of china, shells, and other knick-knacks arranged with mathematical precision; upon the other is the table, the bath, and the cooking-range.
Of course there are rows and rows, according to the interest which the pitowner takes in those who work for him, and of course one meets with different degrees of neatness and space; but no matter how filthy and uncanny the surroundings, the big bed and the sentinel chairs are to be found.
The Geordie who has not children, dogs, or flowers is a remarkable exception to the general rule. In fact, the order of precedence of the average Geordie's household gods may be stated thus : Firstly, the good woman; secondly, the bed and the bath; thirdly, the dogs or flowers; and fourthly, the bairns. Hence it is seen that Geordie's tastes are various. If he is botanical he does not care what sum be gives for a peculiarly gaudy flower. He has an eye for art, as we may see by the papering of his walls with coloured prints and tradesmen's almanacks, and by the fact that his door-posts are often of one vivid colour, whilst his scraper—Geordie always has a scraper—is of another. He is an enthusiastic patron of certain branches of sport, for, besides being especially knowing in all matters canine, he never hesitates to give up a day's work in order to attend a boat-race, or a coursing match, or a game of bowls. He used to be fond of pugilism and wrestling, but of late years his allegiance has been transferred elsewhere, although more " foights" take place in the coal country in a week than occur down south in a year.
Geordie lives well. He would laugh to scorn the south-country yokel's daily dinner of bacon and beans, or the still more moderate diet of the northern rustic. He likes the best of everything, and plenty of it, consuming game largely when in season, and having a known partiality for pineapples, whilst beef and mutton and pork are looked upon as necessaries of life.
Holiday attire, from his point of view, means the display of as much colour as possible, and Geordie's wife, decked out with a brilliant shawl and a gown of startling brilliancy, is a sight to be seen and shuddered at.
Still, Geordie's life is a hard one, and it requires a good deal of high living and a great many holidays to make up for that eight hours' spell of his in the bowels of the earth.
Let us follow him as he goes to relieve the night-shift, let us say at the Wearmouth Pit, the deepest but one in England, situated in the very heart of the town of Sunderland, clad in his coarse jacket, his knee-breeches allowing a bit of blueclad leg to appear above the thick shoes, his pick in one hand, his lamp in the other, and the pipe, which he will have to give up at the colliery gates, clenched lovingly between his teeth.
We can see, by the constant movement of the two huge aerial wheels, that work never ceases here, and whilst Geordie is crossing the labyrinth of railway lines, and dodging between trucks empty and trucks laden, we ourselves must undergo some personal transformation ere we are ready to accompany him. So, in the house of the courteous manager, we are invested with coarse serge knickerbocker suits, with leathern caps, the peaks of which are worn behind, on our heads, and stout sticks in our hands, whilst the ladies of our party, who have come prepared for the dirty ordeal, exchange their hats and bonnets for woollen shawls.
We follow the " viewers," who act as our guides, across the maze of lines, past the huge slag bank, up two or three flights of grimy steps to the room wherein all the lamps are cleaned, filled, and kept in order; we receive each a lamp, and pass into a huge timber hall, around which are squatting perhaps a hundred pitmen, waiting until the last of the night-shift have been brought up.
In the centre of the hall is the pit mouth, that is to say, the " downcast shaft," as distinguished from the " upcast shaft," which is used entirely for ventilating purposes, and every few minutes four cages arrive at the summit, in two of which is the fresh-hewn coal, and in the other two the night-shift men, huddled together, and looking inexpressibly weird as they emerge into daylight.
The trucks in which they sit are not tempting-looking conveyances, and our ladies look rather aghast at them, but we are assured that our descent shall be made in a special manner. So, when the last of the night-shift have "come to bank," a square box, lined with straw, is rolled along the lines, and we are invited to enter. This box, our guide informs us, is called the Sunbeam, because it was made expressly for Lady Brassey.
We settle ourselves as best we can in the necessarily limited space, are warned to duck our heads well down, and are rolled over the mouth of the yawning abyss eighteen hundred feet beneath us. We are then lifted a bit, so as to allow two empties to be put under us, then lowered to allow two other trucks of Geordies to be put over us, and finally descend. Luckily for our nerves, we can see nothing of the pace at which we are going, although about halfway down it makes itself felt by a deafening sensation in the ears, but in exactly two minutes we reach the bottom of the shaft .
We are amazed to find ourselves in a wide, lofty tunnel, white-painted, and brilliantly lighted, with horses and men moving about just as in the streets eighteen hundred feet above our heads. To recover our sense of hearing we adjourn to a small office for a few minutes, and then start for a two-mile ride on what we call a tramtruck, moved on the endless chain principle by a powerful engine. Gradually the tunnel decreases in height and width, until we are obliged to keep our heads well down in order to avoid contact with the huge transverse baulks of timber which support the roof. We note, too, that we are moving through a passage cut in the virgin coal, and when we alight we are fairly amongst the deepest and latest workings of the mine. We strike off from the main truck way, and at once begin the rough portion of our exploration, sometimes moving along for many yards in a crouching position, and even then receiving occasionally brisk smacks on our leathern caps, in other places able to walk upright . The silence is so profound that we can literally hear our hearts beat when we seat ourselves for a few minutes' rest . The coarse flannel shirts make us perspire profusely, although a current of air is felt wherever we go, and the foothold is of the roughest nature. At intervals along the way are spaces cut out of the walls, wherein we stop whilst the train of coal-laden trucks, called "tubs," drawn by ponies, rumble past; and one of the features of this underground locomotion is the marvellous adroitness with which the drivers in charge leap on and off the double connecting chain between the pony and the first " tub " when in full motion.
As yet we have not seen Geordie at work, but a distant, dull, regular sound proclaims the vicinity of a working corner long before we reach it. As there are ladies in our party, one of our guides deems it necessary to go forward and herald the approach of visitors, so that by the time we arrive Geordie has had time to clothe himself rather more than is usual with him while at work.
There are four men working in this corner; two of them are squatting and hewing at the black glistening wall; the third is lying on his back and working at the mass overhead in a passage too narrow to admit of his standing or squatting; whilst the fourth empties the coal into the truck.
Of course, by way of paying footing, each of us has a turn with the pick, and after a few blows, feel pretty much as if we had done a day's work. Then we distribute largesse, and proceed farther, to see the other great sights of the pits—the stables and the ventilating furnace.
The stable consists of a long, lofty gallery cut out of the rock, and in it are some fifty ponies, temporarily off duty. These ponies are brought down when quite foals, and as a rule never see daylight again. Oar guide tells us that one pony, brought to bank after ten years' service in the pit, went mad from the sudden effects of brilliant sunshine, and points to another old veteran of fifteen years' service, " and," he adds, " as good as the day he was first brought."
From the stables we go to the furnace. On our way we pass a chasm in the walls, which we are told is the shaft by which we descended, and, as we have been gradually mounting since our departure from the tram-trucks, we shall see for ourselves the pace at which our cage descended. We wait for a minute; there is a dull sound as of rushing wind, a dense mass is whisked past us, and we are informed that it is the cage going to the pit mouth.
The furnace is at the bottom of the upcast shaft, and is so huge and fierce that at a distance of ten feet, we are glad to shade our faces, with our hands. This heat causes a powerful draught, which is carried down the downcast shaft, through the whole of the workings, and back again up the upcast shaft. To test the force of this draught our guide requests us to open a door close by the furnace. We do manage the operation after much exertion, and are nearly bowled over by the gust with which we are assailed, much to the amusement of half-a-dozen Geordies, who respectfully request another footing payment for our experience.
And so we go on for an hour, up and down, now walking upright and easily, now crouching almost double, stumbling over masses of fallen rock, tripping up over the endless chain, our figures reflected by the light of our safety-lamps in gaunt, weird shadows on the walls of the gallery.
We are very hot and very thirsty, so that we are not sorry when we find ourselves at our starting-place, after having made a good round of the workings, having been under the river, and under the sea, and having penetrated landwards a couple of miles out of the town on the way to Ryhope.
When we arrive at the pit-office, and survey ourselves in the glass, we can appreciate the existence of the tub as a necessary condition of Geordie's life, for, although we have only been below ground two hours, the minute particles of coal-dust have penetrated to the smallest exposed spots on our heads and faces, have drawn black lines around our eyes, and filled our ears and noses.
And so, after a bath and a glass of sherry, and having expressed our appreciation of tho extreme courtesy and attentions of the Wearmouth Pit officials, we sneak along byways and back streets towards home.
We had felt no nervousness during our expedition, probably, as Prior wrote, because—
From ignorance our comfort flows ;
but we were assured that in the pitman's work, as with earthquakes, familiarity with danger breeds anything but contempt, and we were very much struck when we asked an old Geordie whom we met in the workings, when he would be off duty, to hear him reply, "At eight o'clock, if I'm alive."
-Charles Dickens, All the Year Round., Vol. 34, 1884, p.159.
(Remember- Dickens was from
London and therefore a "cockney" in the Geordie Sense that is, anyone from or the South, so therefore the rivalry may be showing. However, in this case Dickens seems to have taken pains to be objective and discount stereotypes. London