‘What was missing in my new church? It was the Pitman’s Cough!

The cough Margaret Duddin missed when she moved home

The first time I went to church in my new home town I sensed an extraordinary difference between that and the little Durham mining village where I grew up: I was acutely aware of a profound silence. So what was missing?

The congregation I joined was just as friendly; I, as a newcomer, was welcomed by the parish priest when I took my seat and waited for the Mass to begin. It was then that The Silence struck me,

Eventually, the truth dawned. What was missing was the sound of men coughing. My upbringing in a pit village among those amazing people had gifted me so many amazingly vivid memories, none more so than the sound of the pitman’s cough.

Until that day every church service I attended was punctuated by the underlying sound of men coughing. Lungs choked with coal dust, their gasping for air could not be silenced, could not be left at home. The disease was their companion wherever they were, not a badge of honour but a sign of the hardship of their lives and the cruel in which they worked.

The coughs varied in depth and continuity and you could recognise the victim by the ‘bark’. We always knew when our Uncle Joe had arrived. He was a small man but his arrival was always preceded by his ferocious cough, intensified by the endless number of Woodbines he smoked. But who could blame him?

He and his ‘marrers’ earned their living in dark, cramped and damp underground tunnels, doing the most rigorous and dangerous work one could imagine. To compensate for the darkness beneath, they were always keen to be scrubbed and suited on the surface.

Like all living things they yearned for the sun, air and space which led them to spend countless hours on their allotments tending and tweaking their plants followed by their pride and joy at the annual flower shows when sharing the exquisite blooms they had nurtured.

There was a dignity about these men, born of mutual trust. They relied on each other in the black depths, thus to be known as a good worker and a reliable team member earned respect in the community.

My father was still suffering from malaria when he returned to the pit after leaving the Royal Navy. His antidote to darkness was long, long walks in the country, but it wasn’t just the human toilers who appreciated being brought into the light; one day my father took me to see the pit ponies brought to the surface.

The effect of the darkness was heartbreaking to see: ponies reached the surface blinded by the sunlight, staggering and scared. The relationship and bond between miner and pony was bittersweet, ‘Bait’ was shared by the miners with the the best fed ponies in the world but the moral compass was truly redirected –  the miners had no choice but to lead their faithful, four-footed colleagues down into the darkness.

So the mines have gone, and with their closure the coughs have disappeared. But we should never forget that generation of heroes, miners, shipbuilders and the steel producers who fuelled the industrial revolution and, as a result, the British Empire but were never properly acknowledged. Their Northern grit and determination shone through the darkness.

Occasionally we would see a procession of Bowes-Lyon trucks carrying the ‘black diamonds’ as we called the shiny, washed coal. On a sunny day with those jewels sparkling in the daylight visitors found it a pleasant sight.

We did not. We knew the cost.


  1. Both my Grandfathers were coal miners.
    They went “down ” at the age of 14! ( working class boys had no need for reading, writing and arithmetic, according to Lord Shaftsbury)
    My grandfather took great joy in the pit ponies he had in his care, and would take treats of sugar and carrot for his favourites. Many of the ponies were born, worked and died underground without ever seeing daylight. 
    My Grandad is a perfect example of a man stifled by lack of opportunity- intelligent, caring and sensitive- but hardened by a tough life including the Great Depression and 2 World Wars.
    I can totally relate to this article. 
    We are indeed The Lucky Generation. 

  2. This fascinating article on the Pitmans Cough, initiated a video chat with an old mate, David Murrish, (who has also written to you) and he in turn introduced me to the Mark Knopfler song 5.15am and its lyrics, that apparently are based upon a true event in 1967. Like David,I hail from the North East, not from mining stock, but my grandfather in South Shields as a Doctor and Surgeon would have treated many from that community. If the VOTN can source other similar mining stories, it would be a treat indeed.

  3. Blimey, the things you find on this website, Ooop North.
    And learn where I am: Down South.
    After reading about Margaret Duddin‘s Durham pit village Peter Harland mentioned in Comments a Mark Knopfler song, 5.15a.m. I had never heard it before
    I looked up the lyrics (Mark Knopfler 5.15 A.M. ) and listened on Youtube.
    Do a Google search for the lyrics: 5.15am knopfler
    In ten minutes, a really mind-expanding experience.
    Thanks, Margaret. Thanks, Peter. Thanks, Ooop North.


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