All Dressed Up...

An extract from “Pit Talk in Co. Durham”, D. Douglas, kindly submitted by Phil Heaton.

The Durham miner is described in the early 19th century as “of only middling stature (few are tall or robust) with several large blue marks, occaisoned by cuts, impregnated with coaldust, on a pale and swarthy countenance.”1

That description would go for his descendants today, but in the matter of dress there have been a great many changes. Most early 19th century descriptions of the Durham miner make him out to be a colourful character. He might wear a coloured kerchief about his neck, a ‘poised waistcoat’ opened at the breast which displayed a striped shirt underneath, a short blue jacket not unlike that which the seamen used to wear, only shorter, velvet breeches which would be left unbuttoned at the knee, blue worsted stockings with white ‘clocks’, and long, low-quartered shoes.2

It was the custom of young miners at this time to wear their hair in curls, turning it round a thin piece of lead, enclosed in paper.3 The leads were taken out at the weekends when the hair was given a thorough wash. The influence of seamen might be seen in the pigtails which eventually died out. The older miner today, with his strict Methodist discipline, reckons little when some of his younger mates appear with beards, long hair and coloured waistcoats (“They divant look like pitmen these days, mair like pansies”); he would be surprised to know that long hair was for centuries a feature of the miner as were his colourful clothes.

Aw now begin te curl may hair (For curls and tails were all the go)
Te clean maw een wi greeter care And smarten up frae top te toe
Maw shinin coat o glossy blue, Lapell'd and lined wi breet shallon
Maw posy jacket a' bran new, Just figured like maw mothers goon.
Maw breeks o bonny velveteen - Maw stockings clocked a' up the leg
Maw nice lang quartered shoon se clean, And buckels real tyuth an egg4
Like any chicken efter moot, When its awd coat it fairly casses,
Aw swaggered then; for maw new suit Played harlik amang the lasses.

On a weekend the miner will dress in his best, white shirt, tie, polished shoes and the inevitable suit, always dark in colour. The young miner at the weekend will take extra care to wipe from his eyes the trail of coal dust that sticks like glue and through the week is usually evident. This is in a sense similar to the days of the miner's Pay Friday, his fortnightly binge. His bath would be a thorough affair then, his back scrubbed clean for his night of freedom.

"He's coaly black on work days, on holidays, he's fine."

Methodism had a profound effect on the Durham miner and changed completely his manner of dress. The "Sunday Blacks" and dark sobriety of his clothes - even when he is all dressed up - are the result. In the old days, the miner was dressed in a colourful regalia. On holiday he went about with a gayness and cleanliness impossible in his working life.

When aw put on my blue coat that shines se,
My jacket wi posies sae fine, se,
My sark sic sma' thread, man,
My pigtail se greet, man,
Odd smash, what a buck was Bob Cranky.

Blue stockings, white clocks, and reed garters,
Yellow breeks, and my shoen wi' lang quarters,
Aw myed wor bairns cry,
Eh! Startees! Ni! Ni!
Sic very fine things had Bob Cranky


  1. History of the County Palatine of Durham, vol. I, p. cxiv
  2. Ibid. pp. cxiv-cxv
  3. Thomas Wilson, “The Pitman's Pay”, p. 55
  4. The reference is to a white metallic compound
  5. "Bob Cranky's Size Sunday" quoted in E. Welbourne “The Miners' Unions of Northumberland and Durham”, p. 19