Brandon Pithouse

There were once more than a thousand men and boys worked at Brandon Pithouse in County Durham. Today the site of the colliery is a green wilderness. John Seed has set out to recover the lost and silent world of Durham pitmen – in the company of Walter Benjamin, Sid Chaplin and Charles Reznikoff. Composed of fragments of recorded speech, parliamentary reports and newspapers, Brandon Pithouse is a book about the experience of labour – about the pain and danger of working underground, about the damage to the human body and about the human relationships created in such conditions. It is a study in the attachments and distances which shape our relationships to place and time, the negotiations required to reconnect ourselves to a world that ceased to exist in the 1990s. It is a set of notes for an unmade Eisenstein film and a footnote to chapter 10 of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. And like any history, it is a ghost story.

Author photo: Gregory Seed

Sample Poem

Extract

6

The darkness never changes. Seasons make no difference. Spring
and summer, autumn and winter, morning, noon, and night, are
all the same.

Coal and stone, stone and coal – above, around, beneath.


There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s
eye hath not seen: The lion’s whelps have not trodden it, nor the
fierce lion passed by it.
       (Job 28: 3, 7-8)

   _________________


they rarely saw daylight for six months of the year

apart from Sundays the whole night’s rest lasting till daylight

the one family dinner of the week

   _________________


   Pressing for more information, he inquired how long I had been
      down the pit.
   
      ‘Seven years,’ was the answer.
   
      In most surprised tones he said, ‘Have you not been up until now?’
   
      I was surprised at him, and replied, ‘Yes, every day except on rare
      occasions.’
   
      ‘Why, I thought you pitmen lived down there always!’

John Wilson

   _________________


       You do get
       All sorts of temperatures
       Down the mine sometimes
       It’s cold as winter sometimes
       Hot as hell

   _________________
   

          Youngest were the trappers of the barrow-way
          where the putters pass they sit
          in a hole like a chimney cut out in the coal

          a string in their hand
          all day in pitch black if the
          candle went out or the oil ran out

          noises of strata moving pieces of roof falling
          rats mice scurrying round their feet
          in muck and water cold and shivering

          opening and closing heavy ventilation
          doors for passing coal tubs
          up to eighteen hours every day


   _________________


Winter of 1844 we had neither, food, shoes, nor light in our first
shift.

I was sent to mind two doors up an incline and the drivers flung
coal and shouted to frighten me as they went to and fro with the
horses and tubs.

       yelling all day long
      half naked
      black
      covered by sweat and foam

The wagon-man, Tommy Dixon, visited me, and cheered me on
through the gloomy night; and when I wept for my mother, he
sang that nice little hymn,

‘In darkest shades if / Thou appear my dawning has begun’.

He also brought me some cake, and stuck a candle beside me.

   _________________

        To reach the pit
        three miles from home
        on cold dark mornings
        sit crouching in a
        dark damp hole behind a door
        kicked and pushed
        here and there among
        lads and brutal men for
        twelve or thirteen hours
        was an experience I little dreamt of
        when we asked Neddy Corvey for
        work at the Leitch Colliery

   _________________


10th November. – Xxxx Xxxxxxx, xx, a lad working xx Xxxxxx
Xxxxxxxx, in the night shift, had stolen some gunpowder, and
was taking it home with him in the early morning, xxx xxxxxx
xxxxx in a piece of gas piping which he had thrust down his
trouser leg to hide it xxxx xxxx, when a spark from the lamp
hanging on his belt fell into the open end of the pipe

   _________________


        I became a door-keeper on the
        barrow-way four years ago
        up at four walked
        to the pit by half-past
        work at five no
        candles allowed except my father
        gave me four burnt about
        five hours I sat in
        darkness the rest of the
        time I liked it very
        badly it was like I
        was transported I used to
        sleep I couldn’t keep my
        eyes open the overman used
        to bray us with the
        yard wand he used to
        leave marks I used to
        be afraid the putters sometimes
        thumped me for being asleep

   _________________


Near a door in the rolley way I held a string which pulled open
    a door and which shut again of itself.
I could move about a little but must be on the watch to see if
    anything was coming.
If I happened not to open the door in proper time I was likely
    to get a cut of the whip.
Swarms of mice in the pit and I could sometimes take them by
    a cut of the whip.

    Midges sometimes put out the candle.
    The pit is choke full of black clocks creeping all about.
    Nasty things they never bit me.

   _________________


I often caught mice.
I took a stick and split it and fixed the mouse’s tail in it.
If I caught two or three I made them fight. They pull one
   another’s noses off.
Sometimes I hung them with a horse’s hair.
The mice are numerous in the pit. They get at your bait-bags
   and they get at the horse’s corn.
Cats breed sometimes in the pit and the young ones grow up
   healthy.
Black clocks breed in the pit. I never meddled with them except
   I could put my foot on them.
A great many midges came about when I had a candle.

   _________________


I used to come up at six
went home got dinner washed and went to bed.

       no mischief in turnip or pea fields
       in orchard or garden
       but what I was
       in it or
       blamed for it

    when the pits were idle I wandered

    Houghton-le-Spring    Hetton    Lambton
    Newbottle    Shiney Row
    Philadelphia    Fence Houses    Colliery Row    Warden Haw
       Copthill

    every wood dene pond and whin-cover
    was known to us in our search for
    blackberries mushrooms cat-haws crab-apples nuts

    not a bird’s nest in wall hedge or tree for miles around
    escaped our vigilance

   _________________

One day the overman sent us to a part of
the mine we’d never been before there was fire-damp

put out our candles one after another as fast as
we lighted them so we ran it was not safe

to try it on any longer and we began to
scramble our way back in the dark laughing we were

a great deal but we missed our way and got
into old workings abandoned for years and got lost we

wandered about for two whole days and nights and were
nigh starved to death afore we found our way out.

   _________________

many who escaped to the higher workings
must have subsisted for some time on
candles horse-flesh and horse-beans

part of a dead horse was found near and
but few candles were left
though a considerable supply had been received
just before the accident

   _________________

Mushrooms
grow in the pits
at the bottom of the props
and where the muck’s fallen
100 yards or more from the shaft

   _________________

Reviews

‘John Seed has done it again. His historian’s mind and his poet’s ear combine to lift voices out of their documentary shafts and arrange them in artificial visual forms that slow down our reading eyes just enough so that we can hear the voices too, bearing testimony amid the statistics and documents. It’s secular magic.’

Robert Sheppard

‘John Seed is not inclined to call this work poetry but it uncertainly is – simply by the weight of the emotional truth it bears within it and through the factual interpretive discipline in the attention it pays to its fabrication. Its fluidity, its adherence to its materials, its rhythms, cadence and vernacular, produce a verity of being – the being of a way of life now gone. I implore you to read this work.’

Ralph Hawkins

‘a poetry book that deserves a place in every Durham home.’

Northern Echo

‘a fascinating poetic social document-cum-oral history.’

The Recusant