In the coal mining districts of County Durham, England, in the 19th and 20th centuries, almost every colliery (coal mine) had a colliery band. Bands were sponsored by the local mining communities and were a source of great pride for the working men who played in the band and the community who attended their performances. These were brass bands with brass and percussion instruments. My father was about 15 years old when he joined the New Herrington Colliery Band in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham in 1950.
Formed in the 1900s, the New Herrington Colliery Band became a military style band after the First World War.1 Financial support for the colliery bands came from the coal miners themselves. In 1934, the New Herrington Colliery Band was supported by subscription and a levy of a penny per fortnight from the Herrington Colliery miners.2
Although most of the pits in County Durham have now closed, there are some colliery bands in County Durham and other parts of England which still play on today. One of the most well-known is the Grimethorpe Colliery Band in South Yorkshire. Formed in 1917, the band is one of the most successful and long-lived brass bands. They were the focus of the 1996 British film, “Brassed Off”, which showcased the bands’ struggle to survive after the closure of their pit.
And if you feel like getting your toes tapping, just click below and hear the Grimethorpe Colliery Band playing the William Tell Overture.
I have written before about my great-grandfather, John Bellas and his frequent journeys from County Durham, England to Kimberley, South Africa to work in the mines. His wife, my great-grandmother, Ann Wilson, married at age 20, becoming an instant mother to John’s small child from his first marriage. She was a woman who, for many years as John traveled to find work, raised their children alone. She crossed an ocean to an unknown land with her young family to be with her husband. She buried six children before she was 41 years old. She was a strong and beloved woman.
Ann Wilson was the second wife of John Bellas, they married in 1887 in County Durham. 1 Ann was 20 years old when they married and settled in Newbottle, a small village occupied mostly by coal miners and their families. John Bellas had been widowed in 1886, leaving him with a young child, also named John Bellas. Upon her marriage to John, Ann became a mother, taking over the care of four year old, John. In August of 1888, Ann gave birth to her first child, a son they named Thomas Bellas. Unfortunately tragedy struck a year later, in 1889, when John died at the age of five.
A few months later, Ann found herself pregnant again, this time with twins. The twins were born on 14 May 1890 and were named John and Elizabeth Jane.2 John lived only one day. Elizabeth Jane lived 15 days. Ann had buried three children and was only 23 years old.
In October 1893, John Bellas left England, making the 17-day journey by ship to South Africa. Ann had given birth in March 1893 to a baby girl, Mary Hannah.3 For the next six years, John was only home for short periods of time as he traveled back and forth between England and South Africa.
I imagine that life was not easy for Ann, having her husband gone for long intervals. In 1899, newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley. This must have caused great anxiety for Ann. John joined up with the Kimberley Town Guard to defend Kimberley from Boer attacks. The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces. All of this was constantly being reported on in the newspapers of the day, no doubt causing much worry for Ann over her husband’s safety.
The 1901 census 4 shows the entry for Annie Bellas and her four children in the village of Shiney Row, County Durham. Ann is described as the head of the household, aged 35. She has no occupation listed indicating she likely relied on the money that John was able to send back to the family from South Africa. The children were aged 12, 8, 4 and 2 years old. Basically a single mother for much of those six years, Ann was fortunate to have some family support with her in-laws, David and Margaret Bellas, living next door.
John Bellas was fortunately unharmed in the skirmishes around Kimberley and in 1903 returned to his family in County Durham. Again, this was only for a short time, but this time, Ann and the children accompanied John on his return to South Africa. Had Ann had enough of being left behind and insisted the family goes with him? Did she simply miss her husband and not want to be parted from him? The impetus for the move is unknown but Ann did pack up the family and she and the four children joined John Bellas on his return trip.
One can only imagine how much strength and courage this must have taken. Ann had never left County Durham and was now taking her children on a journey across the ocean to South Africa. She was 35 years old. The children were 14, 9, 6 and 4 years of age.
John and Ann would have another 5 children born in Kimberley, South Africa between 1903 and 1909. Unfortunately, three of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis. Ann had now buried 6 children (including John, the child she became a mother to upon marrying John Bellas).
Ann and John stayed in South Africa until July 1911. Boarding the steam ship ‘Durham Castle’ the family, with the exception of two of their children, traveled via Delagoa Bay, Mozambique to Southampton, London.5 Eldest son, Thomas, had been working in the Kimberley mines since he was 15 years old and stayed behind to continue working. Daughter Mary Hannah had married earlier in 1911 and also stayed behind. Ann left behind the tiny graves of the three children born in South Africa and her eldest son and a daughter. It surely must have been a difficult goodbye.
Although John would make one more trip to South Africa in early 1912, Ann remained in County Durham. John returned to England in 1913 and rejoined the family. Ann lived to be 64 years old, passing away in Shiney Row, County Durham on 22 August 19306. John passed away in 1938.7
Ann was obviously a much beloved wife and mother and deeply missed as is shown in the memorials published in the newspaper by her husband and children from 1931 through 1940. Each year on the anniversary of her death, her husband and children placed an ‘In Memoriam’ piece in the local newspaper.8
England, marriage certificate for John Bellas and Ann Wilson, married 25 June 1887, registered April quarter 1887, Houghton-le-Spring District 10a/600, Registry Office, Durham. ↩
England, birth of John and Elizabeth Jane Bellas, born 14 May 1890; registered April quarter 1890, Durham District 10a/487, Houghton-le-Spring District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, birth of Mary Hannah Bellas, born 21 March 1893; registered April quarter 1893, Durham District 10a/503, Houghton-le-Spring District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
1901 census of England, County Durham, Shiney Row, p. 12 (stamped), Annie Bellas; image, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012); citing The National Archives, RG13, piece 4694, folio 55, p. 13; Houghton-le-Spring registration district, ED 14, household 76. ↩
UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960, database with images, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012), “Names and Description of British Passengers,” entry for John Bellas family, arrived 16 August 1911 on Durham Castle from Delagoa Bay. ↩
England, death of Annie Bellas, 22 August 1930; registered September 1930, Durham District 10a/422, Houghton District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, death of John Bellas, 27 January 1938; registered March 1938, Durham District 10a/528, Houghton District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
“In Memoriam,” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Durham, England, 22 August 1933, p. 8, col. 1. ↩
Out of all your ancestors who would you most like to share a meal with? I would like to sit down with my 16 great great grandparents as they seem to be a fascinating lot. All 8 couples were born in different parts of the U.K. and the world. There is a lot I know about them but even more I haven’t yet discovered.
I imagine the conversation among these 16 dinner guests would be lively. The coal miners at the table, William Thomas from St. Agnes, Cornwall, John Bruce from Edinburgh, Scotland, David Bellis from Holywell, Wales and Richard Wilson, from County Durham, would no doubt have much to say about mining and wages and working conditions.
Perhaps sitting in one corner of the table the two Germans, Helena Schmidt and George Eberhard, might have been chatting about where in Germany they were from (information I would like to have!) and what brought them to their current homes. Helena Schmidt Davis was living in England by 1877 and George Eberhard, an engineer, had made the very long journey to the Cape Province, South Africa, sometime before 1880.
John Hayes and Bridget Dillon Hayes would be the only Irish folk at the table, and John, the only military man at the gathering. He had been a tailor before joining the British Army in Belfast, Ireland at the age of 18. He had been posted to Tullamore, King’s County, Ireland where he met and married Bridget in 1882. His military service would take him to Jamaica where their first child would be born, and then on to South Africa. John Hayes and George Eberhard, despite likely language barriers, may have been able to talk about their trip to South Africa and what life was like there.
John Kewn and Jane Gell Kewn were from the Isle of Man. John was a very successful builder with his own business. Financially, he would probably be the most well off at the table. Joshua Davis, finding himself seated next to the successful John Kewn, may have been rather quiet. Joshua himself came from a very well to do family, but was considered to be almost the black sheep of the family. He was a plumber by trade, while the rest of his brothers worked in the thriving family business of being railway carriage owners.
The ladies at the table would of course, find plenty to talk about as ladies often do. Susan Bastian had been married at age 17 to William Thomas, and they had seven children. Many of the women at the table were coal miner’s wives and some had worked at the mines themselves. By 1842, it was illegal for women to work below ground so Susan and her children worked above ground sorting coal. Christina McIntosh, born in South Africa to Scottish parents, operated a store in the front room of her home and Bridget Dillon Hayes was a school teacher. The other wives all worked in the home, taking care of their husbands and children. The eight couples had 58 children between them, of which only four died in infancy. That is quite a feat considering infant mortality rates in the mid-1800s.
My dinner guests:
William Thomas (born 1834, St. Agnes, Cornwall) and Susan Bastian (born 1837, Chacewater, Cornwall) John Bruce (born 1843, Edinburgh, Scotland) and Isabella Bowes (born 1847, Sherburn, Durham, England) David Bellis (born 1822, Holywell, Flintshire, Wales) and Margaret Williams (born 1833, Abergele, Wales) Richard Wilson (born 1840, Philadelphia, Durham, England) and Elizabeth Twedell (born 1845, Gosforth, Northumberland, England) Joshua Davis (born 1854, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) and Helena Schmidt (born 1851, Germany) John Joseph Hayes (born 1862, Carrickfergus, Antrim, Ireland) and Bridget Mary Hayes (born 1865, Cork, Ireland) John Kewn (born 1821, Peel, Kirk German, Isle of Man) and Jane Gell (born 1826, Peel, Kirk German, Isle of Man) George Eberhard (born 1857, Berlin, Germany) and Christina Elizabeth McIntosh (born 1857, Knysna, Cape, South Africa)
I love prompts that get you thinking about your ancestors! Week 4’s prompt for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow is ‘Invite to dinner’.