Oral History: Political organisations – Doreen Henderson, Socialist, Folk Singer

Doreen Henderson and her husband Bryan

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Popular Politics Project

Date and place of birth: 26 November 1927, Birtley Huts known as Elizabethville

Interviewer: Kath Connolly, 17 November 2012 at Great Lumley, Chester le Street.

Location of interview recording: Durham County Record Office North East Labour History Popular Politics Project 2012/3. Reference D/NELH 9021






Doreen Henderson (nee Elliott) Interviewed by Kath Connolly for the NELH Popular Politics Project 17 November 2012 at 1 Exeter Close, Great Lumley, Chester le Street.

I asked her to tell me where and when she was born and where did she get her politics.

My maiden name was Elliott, I was born 26 November 1927 in the Birtley Huts known as Elizabethville. It had been a Belgian Community during WW1, supported by the Belgian Government, a home for the Belgian soldiers, too badly injured to fight on the Front, they were working in the ammunitions works. It had school, cinema, hospital, church and gendarmes but once the war was over they were evacuated immediately leaving empty houses.

There was a severe housing shortage then across Durham and if you knew of people who lived there, when a house became vacant they let you know and you moved in: free rent, free electricity and flush toilets. Can you imagine that in 1927?- we didn’t have a flush toilet again until 1936/7.

I was surrounded by family, all four Elliott brothers worked at Cotia Colliery (Harraton Colliery), my mam’s two brothers also worked in the pits. I didn’t realise I was political, it was just in us. The majority of pitmen were political without being a member of a political party, they just knew they were being shafted. A sense of their class bound them together like no other job because conditions were so bad. I couldn’t work out why,( and still can’t) my dad had this love of the pit and he wasn’t alone, pitmen did. He would say,” she’s a bitch”, pits were all she’s.

We moved from the huts when conditions deteriorated rapidly and mam hated it and there were six of us in a one up one down house at Pelaw Grange (Barley Mow) and it was lovely, I was never happier in my life. There were three beds in the bedroom, not enough room to have nightmares. We got up one  Saturday morning and there was our baby brother Len. Brothers  Pete and John born in the Huts. Once a week they came with a horse and cart and shovel and emptied the toilet (dry midden).

Dad was very political a member of the union  and when we moved across the road to Brown’s Buildings , a colliery house; a mansion, 2 up 2 down, 2 gardens; the big back garden across the back lane. The house was used as a political meeting house, for the Wobblies when it started , Communist Party and next door neighbours were all very political, Communist Party, Jim Roberts  had been expelled from America for his politics.

Mam and Dad became Atheist and stopped me from taking religion and attending assemblies in school, this was a bad move, the teachers weren’t prepared for it, it was horrendous. One teacher in particular said it was impossible for us to tell the truth because we were atheist, we didn’t know the difference. We went to Secondary School, Chester Secondary Modern . It was a uniform school we passed for which was easy for the lads they could share the gear, ties and so on but harder for me Mam was a little fatty. Miss Bush who was a religious fanatic stood me in the middle of the hall and said , “now turn round-this is how not to come to school and if you have to wear your socks for two days running make sure you put them on the same foot”. You would mark your socks with your ankle bones- that was the kind of minute detail. She taught French, we loved French but she never once spoke to me again.

Pete and I told Mam and Dad what was happening and they very dignified, went to see the Headmaster. Pitmen were clever and their use of language was beautiful.

Mam left school at 13 and went to place (service ) at Low Fell, Colonel Greenwell had six kids. They refused to call her by her Christian name Emma, which they thought was too posh, so always called her Wilkin. It made her a Socialist. Her mam died when she was 11 and she had to look after the little ones- she was a little tyrant (mam) and rightly so. She joined the Labour Party and was branded a communist, she wasn’t a member of the Communist Party, none of us were.

I asked if she educated herself, was she a reader ?

Pete and I went to the library every Friday , we had our two tickets so she had the use of six tickets she told us not to bring any women authors, they weren’t educated sufficiently. We brought novels now and then, political books and autobiographies, she got herself onto the Library Committee (Birtley) and so she got to choose the books. Dad and her joined the Left Book Club and Free Thinkers so there were always books in the house.

She didn’t like to go shopping  we did that, I remember her Co-op number 1295.

Apart from politics we spent hours singing. Dad told us not to raise your voice or point your finger then you would have lost the argument so we were trained politicians.

If I had a bad day then when I got home I would lean against the back door and sigh “WOW” with relief, back home. Home was more important to everyone in those days, that’s all we had. I played outside for hours but no toys like bikes and dolls prams we used our imagination, such as playing shops, using leaves for plates.


We didn’t always shop at the Co-op but Mam always said there was quality at the Co-op, so we shopped there for furniture, not that we had much furniture but they didn’t deliver and she didn’t like to leave the house to shop so she got Broughs in Chester to deliver, someone came out to the house and took your order once a week. She would say to me, “ if you see a nice blouse, fetch it”.


I got my first job at Walter Willsons and later using my wages bought something for my mam one week and dad the next. I joined the Labour Party and went to meetings. After I sat my civil service exam I bought her first bra. I said, “Mam, put it on” and she said, “How, (laughter) was there nothing stronger, should it not be like stays?” I delivered groceries on a bike and when the lad who drove the horse and cart was called up for the army I took that job ,unusual for a girl. My dad did his nut, he thought I was being exploited – no extra pay. I worked  with an old man who always called me dowter – “now then dowter”. He gave me an egg – raw and said swallow it whole. I delivered to the outlying districts; Pelton, Lumley, Chester Moor. The horse was called Daisy and I loved it, being outside.

I left there and went into a 2 year nursing course at the Isolation Hospital (Chester le Street) which I loved. Atheism was never an issue there. There were some bad epidemics We were nursing people with Diptheria and Scarlet Fever, there were so many cases, there were sometimes two children in a bed. Children were isolated up to 6 weeks with Scarlet Fever and 3 months with Diptheria and didn’t see their parents. If parents brought parcels on a Wednesday and Saturday with sweets and treats we shared them out – it was all divided very democratic, the rules of the hospital. It was pre penicilin days so we cared for them by nursing, and taking them out into the grounds.

All together I had 28 jobs. I had £3/10/- as my nursing salary for a month in 1949 and when I queried it they said but we are keeping you, they said I had Bed and Breakfast too. I got home once a week on my day off. There were no married women. We were all expected to stay in hospital, now when I see nurses out in their uniforms I think it unhygienic.

A job came up at the Post Office at £7 a week and I got the job on condition I did the civil service exam so I went to train for 3 months at St Nicholas Buildings (Newcastle).A beautiful building. I thought I was a millionaire. It was very political and had a strong union but the best place I ever worked in terms of the politics was Vickers Armstrongs on Scotswood Road. “Oh boy”. A clerk. An old man called Fred Davison  adopted me , he had no children of his own , he knew politics, wonderful, and would say come along and have a drink and go to meetings- there were more  pubs along Scotswood Road! Not all of the places I worked had a union. I got the Union in in Broughs; they were doing illegal things like going through your handbags at night. The  unions were very successful.

Fred retired and I got sick of the travelling so I got a job at Henley’s Cables (just along the road from her house). I worked on the premise anybody could do anything but my maths was never good and they brought out big leather bound ledgers, “Oh,” but I said yes I can do that so I used to take them home on a Friday and my dad did the sums. They were always right. Then a job came up as a nurse and I got it, that it saved me. That was the last job I did before I got married.

I was married at 24 (to Bryan) and then worked as a school nurse for Gateshead, but didn’t work when Kay and John  were small, I thought I should be at home for them. I was a Nitty Norah, it was very political there, Gateshead was a Labour council.


I came from a very musical family. Mam’s father was well educated but a cruel man and a drunkard. The family had a singing group and she was a lovely singer, they performed at the Sunderland Empire. Dad’s father played the accordion and dad played the guitar, banjo, jews’  harp and accordion. Mam refused to let him play the fiddle unless he practiced in the toilet in the yard so he never mastered it. We sang street songs and nursery rhymes. We set up a skiffle group and used to bang on the bleezer, while we sang.

Dad and Pete joined the Newcastle Folk Club. He (Dad) was a great raconteur and they really took to him,  they sang protest and pit songs. Ewan McColl came up to Newcastle , he and Peggy stayed with us for a week- they got on so well. If ever there was a socialist it was Ewan McColl. We had a two up two down and by then just mam and dad so there was plenty of room. Ewan thought this (pit talk) was pure Chaucer- a language all of its own, not just dialect and he was intrigued with that.

We got a first booking down in London at the Singers Club, Ewan McColl’s club, singing folk songs but we didn’t know they were folk songs, just our songs. Ewan and Peggy were amazed at the number of songs we had.Uncle Reece dad’s older brother came over, he had a lovely voice. He worked with Dad as marras at Cotia, he was telling the tale how Dad, was a cutter on the coal cutting machine and he was loading. Dad heard this funning grunting noise and when he turned round Dad had his foot jammed under Uncle Reece’s chin. That shows the depth of the seam and the very, very limited space they had to work in. Pitmen are very close, working together in a team made them rely on each other. They were both big men, 6 foot and well built. Uncle Reece came down one day, he only shaved at the weekend when they went to the pub or club, a muffler- coloured , white only at the weekends and said word had come down they had to see the gaffer. They were on first shift, started 2 in the morning so they went to bed early. They had to see the gaffer in their own time; why hadn’t they reached their target? I thought how did he dare talk to these two giants in their scruffy mufflers and caps. They walked to the pit every day a couple of miles. I see them now, a sort of roll when they walked and bandy legs. Uncle Reece said “you and me have worked our way to London the miles we have hewed at that pit”.

Dad was the man with the charisma and the bookings rolled in. People were fascinated by him, he was marvellous at telling the tale. They thought pitmen were thick but when they heard him speaking they changed their minds. He said,” I am not a one off tha knaas, theres hundreds of clever people down the pit”.

Len , my youngest brother, got a job in the sawmill (between Barley Mow and Ouston) when they (management) found out, they were told that you either come to work at the pit or the family gets out of the colliery house. Len ended up as a gardener, he used to hate the pit.

Durham Big Meeting

We raised the money and had the (Harraton/Cotia) banner made; Jack Elliott and Jock Purdon. We take it every year to Durham and when we get to the County Hotel we sing Union Miner (the pitmens’ anthem) to them on the balcony. I don’t like this them and us –  guests on the balcony.

Some of the speakers have been fascinating but when I heard that David Milliband  was going to be invited I went to see Hopper and said if he was invited then we wouldn’t take the banner any more- he had never been to the Miners’ Gala, he was just looking for votes.

Tony Blair, he’s never shown his face once at Durham Big Meeting- not my kind of socialist.

Thank you very much Doreen that’s been fabulous.   

 Doreen and Bryan then sing two of their favourite songs-   When cockle shells turn silver bells and Union Miner.


 The recording of this interview is kept at Durham County Record Office North East Labour History Popular Politics Project 2012/3. Reference D/NELH 9021