Sunniside History Society

Tommy Armstrong


Tommy Armstrong

Since we featured the short story of Tommy Armstrong some months ago, there has been many enquiries from people greatly interested in Tommy's life. As a result of that interest we have decided to feature this more complete story of Tommy Armstrong.

Tommy was born in Wood Street at Shotley Bridge County Durham on the 15th August 1848. His father and mother had moved to the area from Haswell. Today he twin rows of stone-built cottages have been demolished, as have the gas works and flour mill which once operated at either end. This was the Western fringe of the coalfield, along which small drift mines like those at Whittonstall and Daisy Hill worked. In the early 1850's, Tommy's parents moved Eastwards once again this time to settle in the Stanley area, first at South Pontop and thereafter in and around East Tanfield and Stanley. It was a move from the countryside of the Derwent valley to a rapidly expanding and urban mining district. Here Tommy started in the pits, working at the South Pontop and East Tanfield (pictured above) Collieries, as a youngster he had suffered severely from rickets, and this illness was to leave him deformed. His bow legs in latter life needed the permanent aid of sticks and he never reached more than five feet in height, Undoubtedly, this affected his working life. (His son recounts how, as a boy Tommy had to be carried to work by his older brother, to his first job as trapper, opening and shutting air lock doors, a job which he would have been able to do with little or no walking.) Equally clearly, this served as an important material pressure on his song writing career, nor was this a unique phenomenon. George Ridley's serious song writing was spurred by necessity and the consequences of a severe industrial accident. Such accidents were not uncommon, and for working men in the North, the popular culture of singing, entertaining and writing verse offered the possibility of a small, but alternative income.

He married Mary Anne Hunter in 1869 and they produced 14 children, following the death of Anne in 1898 he married Ann Thompson in 1901

Songs were sold as broadsheets, printed and distributed by local printers; funeral directors bought verses for their cards. This was one of the ways in which Tommy Armstrong came to earn a living. What put him on the way was the presence of a vibrant popular culture in the Stanley area.

In his unpublished ‘History of Stanley’ Fred Wade makes reference to the musical evenings that took place in the town and to the popularity of a local comedian called Mr. Macmillan. At the age of fifteen Tommy attended one of his performances in Stanley. That night the comic shared the bill with Joe Wilson, a young man who was making a name for himself as a street singer on Tyneside, from this time on it would seem that Tommy Armstrong was set to become the "pitman's poet" and if this was made possible by the popular culture of the area, it was the mines and the mining industry which provided the inevitable and unrelenting background to his life and songs. Tommy Armstrong's life (1848 to 1920) spans the heyday of the coalfield that was known as the Great Northern Coalfield.

In 1821 the Hetton company sank the first shaft through the limestone on the concealed coalfield in the East of the county. With coal drawn from the Hetton Lyons Blossom pit, the area was set for a substantial expansion in coal production. The dependence upon the London market for house coal eased as other coal-using industries - iron and steel and shipyards - expanded. In the thirties and forties new pits were sunk in rapid succession in the East and the West of the county - Monkwearmouth, Seaham, Murton, Thornley, Haswell, Wingate, Esh Winning and Roddymoor. All these collieries were sunk at this time. In the Stanley district Murns' colliery was sunk in 1832 and the Air pit in 1849. Tanfield colliery itself was opened in this period.

So rapid and extensive was this development that in 1850 a correspondent for the Times newspaper described County Durham as little more than one huge colliery". In 1869, when Armstrong would have been twenty-one, there were 157 collieries and drifts operating in the coalfield. Stanley itself was ringed with collieries owned by the Lambtons and the Joiceys, John Bowes and Partners and the new joint stock companies like Holmside and South Moor and the South Medomsley Colliery Company. Stanley was like the Klondyke - a place dominated by the mining of black gold. In the last thirty years of the nineteenth century it expanded enormously, transforming a rural area into a major urban complex. For Tommy Armstrong there were two Stanley’s, first there was the business street, with theatres, picture halls, shops, churches and pubs". All this however rested upon. the, industrial base of the town, and the harsh conditions of its workers - the miners - and their families.

At the East end of the Louisa Terrace, a railway line crossed the road to serve the Oakey's Colliery screens and siding, and these were behind a high wooden fence about sixty yards long. Three drab grey stone houses and another fence of thirty yards, behind which was an airshaft for the Louisa Pit. On the opposite side of the road beginning at the rail crossing was a high brick wall with coal hoppers inset, to provide for the delivery of workmen’s free coal, and the lofty brick buildings of South Moor Colliery County Workshops. These buildings enclosed the Louisa Old and new pit shafts, railway sidings and screens. The latter also catered for the Hedley and William pits of Old South Moor, their coals reaching the screens by way of the Hedley gangway with the use of endless rope haulage.

In this time of great industrial change rural traditions were maintained. Men kept pigs and a range of other livestock. Women cooked all manner of food, and also cleaned and sewed and washed. 'Market Day’ remained an important day in the weekly routine. Something of this life is captured by Tommy Armstrong in songs like ‘Stanla Market’ (with the opening line if you're bad and off your meat) and ‘Cat Pie’ and ‘Hedgehog Pie’, while a side of community relations which are far from idyllic is developed memorably in the Row in the Gutter. Daily life, and its goings on, form the focus of these songs. Others examine daily life in the pit, and here the gaiety and mischief has a strong ascebic edge. ‘Oakey's Keeker’ is a case in point.

The "keeker" in the Durham mines was the man in charge of the surface of the colliery, Here was the place where the coal, hewed with such effort and drawn off the coal face in tubs, was measured and weighed. The miners were paid by the weight of coal in their tubs and if there was too high a proportion of stone payment was reduced. So important was the weighing on the surface that miners had their own "check weighman" to check the master's weights. In all this, of course, the “keeker” was a central figure.

A bad “keeker” could make a considerable difference in the weekly wage packet. And at Oakey's Colliery in the 1870's the miners had to endure such a man. Joseph Elliot was transferred to the pit from the nearby Bank foot Colliery In Anfield Plain. In Durham people's biographies are followed closely, and it was known that Elliot was born into a family in Maiden Law, To the people of Stanley he was known as "Maiden Law Joe", and this is how he is referred to by Armstrong, He must, he says, have been born without feeling or shame" that hairy faced rascal Old Maiden Law Joe". It was this description which moved the “keeker” to take Tommy Armstrong to court for libel. Tommy Gilfellon recounts how:

“Upon presentation of the offending work to the clerk of the court and the magistrates, he found smiles of amusement on their faces too. Enquiring closer of Elliot as to what in particular he objected to in the poem, the magistrates were told that 'he called me a hairy faced rascal'. 'Well' said the clerk of the court, 'you still have your whiskers'. The following day, the last two verses of the poem appeared.” These verses, incidentally, elaborated the insult, suggesting that Oakey's “keeker” was certainly bound for hell.

This story makes clear the way in which these son poems linked directly into life and politics in the are popularity of the verses made them important political weapons in a society where "the masters" anticipated respect as part of their due. This aspect of Tommy Armstrong's writings was developed in other directions also. His songs were distributed and sold as broadsheets, so too were his letters and other pieces of prose.

At that time it was fortnightly pays, Miners had to go to the Overman's house or office and he would tell you what the pay was for you to draw on the following night. There was a number of ways in which, through fines and deductions the infamous ("off-takes") the miner's wage is cut back. For example, seven shillings for powder and candles, twopence for the pick sharper, sixpence for house and coal, ninepence for the doctor, sixpence for water, ninepence for the weighman, half a crown you got over much last time, two shilling for the hospital, two shilling for picks and shafts and four shillings for striking at a putter. Obviously the poor coal miner could be quite literally robbed by unscrupulous management, there was no appeals system to challenge the’ off takes’. Fines and "off-takes" were but one part of the lines of potential conflict which divided the masters and their miners on the coalfield. The Colliery Houses were owned by the coal owners and their up- keep was a constant cause of concern. The houses were slums and the miners had no other choice but to live in them, unfortunately the threat of eviction was used by the coal owners as a great deterrent. In times of strike, miners and their families were evicted from these homes, This is the theme of both Oakey's Strike and the South Medomsley Strike. Oakey's Strike was written by Armstrong at the Red Row public house at Beamish Burn.

Tommy’s song ‘The South Medomsley Strike’ (held in many folk circles as the greatest mining song ever written), the aim was to put the record straight, to identify the masters who are to blame, and to lambast the Candymen who, with the aid of the local down-and- outs, eject the miners and the families from their homes. These are both powerful songs in which colliery managers and owners are described as tyrants and their accomplices threatened with boiling or hanging. It is for those Candymen that Armstrong's most severe wrath is reserved. These men, local scrap metal dealers, earned their name through their practice of giving sweets to children in return for rags. In the North, their reputation after strikes was lower than that of the blacklegs.

The songs were written at a critical time for the Durham miners. Throughout the nineteenth century they had struggled to form a trade union. In the 1830's and the 1840's unionism was defeated and union activists like Hepburn and Jude blacklisted. In the 1850's and 1860's isolated miners like Ramshaw and Rymer continued in their attempts to build a trade union amongst miners in Durham. In 1869 the Durham Miners Association was formed and this was recognised by the masters in 1871. With the recognition of the union went the removal of the bond. But not the removal of conflict and injustice. The strikes in the 1870's were critical ones which emphasised this fact. The biggest strike, however, took place in 1892 when the whole of the Durham coalfield was locked out. In this strike (which took place in the middle of a period when miners were attempting to form a base for national unity) the Durham miners were alone. Although they received help from collections, notably from Northumberland, coal continued to be produced in Yorkshire and Durham. The Durham miners were defeated. At that time Tommy Armstrong was 44 and at the height of his reputation as a song writer.


This wonderful old photograph of Tanfield with St Margaret's Church in the background was loaned to us by Society Committee member Michael Tindall. His grandfather Jack Irwin is the Blacksmith shoeing the horse.


His poem on the strike, ‘The Durham Strike,’ was so to raise funds and Armstrong appeared on platforms throughout the county with Patterson, the General Secretary of the Durham Miners Association. This song is a standard mining ballad which recounts clearly where the blame lies, and the debt the miners owe to their brothers in Northumberland. It resonates with another of Armstrong's standard verses, ‘The Trimdon Grange Explosion.’ This song, with its evocative opening lines, "let us not think about tomorrow lest we disappointed be", was not written in dialect.

As the Durham Strike was a public statement of right and wrong, so too this lament to the dead of the major colliery explosion at Trimdon Grange (pictured above) ten years earlier. It draws attention in a clear way to the fates which affect coalminers, fates which were made all too clear on the coalfield in the nineteenth century. But in 1851 there had been thirteen major disasters on the coalfield in which a total of 525 men had been killed. In Armstrong's lifetime these were followed by major disasters at Seaham, Trimdon, Tudhoe, Usworth, Ellmore, Fencehouses, Wingate and Haswell. In 1909, of course, the worst of them all took place in Stanley, where 168 men were killed in the explosion at Burn's Pit in the town.

In his lifetime Armstrong became clearly identified as the “Pitman's Poet". Any event of note (charabanc accident or the opening of a railway) would have to be recognised with a verse from the poet. His son recalled his father saying: "When you're the 'Pitman's Poet' an looked up to for it, why if a disaster of a strike goes by without a song from you they say: 'What's with Tommy Armstrong? Has someone drove a spigot in him an' let out all the inspiration?'

As such it is likely that he wrote at the time of the mine disaster in Stanley. Perhaps this is one of the many verses and songs that have been lost forever. Perhaps too, by this time, Tommy was past his prime. His letters to the papers in his later life lack the sparkle of his earlier writings. At the time of the First World War he was deeply chauvinist, and writing verse attacking "Dirty Kaiser Bill' (some signs of this chauvinism can be seen in earlier verse like, for example, The Row in the Gutter).

By 1870 Tommy was famous throughout the Stanley area not only as a poet but as an entertainer too and had formed his own concert party. Tommy himself was no singer, nor did he ever profess to be, in fact his musical ability was, to say the least, limited. His greatest asset as a performer was his razor sharp wit which, with his gift for improvisation of verse, ensured that he was never at a loss for words. With his disguises and his short, bandy legs he could reduce an audience to helpless laughter by the simple process of standing silently on stage for a minute or two.

He had a family of fourteen and a considerable appetite for beer, as a man, and a writer it is clear that the muse lay in a pint of beer. While some remember him fondly in old age, others remember a rather cantankerous man with bow legs and sticks. Tommy had his poems printed and sold them at a penny a time in order to pay for his drink and in its turn the beer often inspired new creations.

With the fame of his concert party growing Tommy was a busy man but it was well known that he would always find the time to bring his talents to the aid of any charitable cause in the locality. His troupe performed at and organised innumerable functions to raise money for victims of misfortune and pit disaster, for reading rooms and the funds of the struggling miners' union. His work was committed to improving the lot of the miner and displayed a profound class consciousness, a noticeable faculty for criticism of society. The 1880s and '90s was a militant period when the membership of the miners' federation rose dramatically to 200,000. Strikes and lockouts were frequent and the pitmen were at last combining to present a solid front to the coal owners. Their movement was by no means revolutionary, nor did it have any long term ideological goals and the pitmen's attitude is mirrored in their songs of the period, wherein they call for the redress of immediate grievances. These songs also served a practical purpose in as much as they also raised money for the hungry families of strikers when they were sung in the streets.

In the years to come, to remember Tommy was not to romanticise. Rather it is to see his songs as an enormous personal achievement whose main strengths lies in the firm roots they took in the experiences of the Durham mining communities. Perhaps it is fitting that he is best 'remembered for the songs he wrote about these people. ‘Funny Names in Tanfield Pit’ is an ingenious play on the odd family names represented in the colliery. In this it resonates with the enormous preoccupation with the detail of local issues which dominated Durham mining culture and its sense of humour. This is clear too in his most famous song ‘Wor Nanny's a Maisor’ which, in its tale of mishap, drunkeness and carefree abandon stands out as a very special Northern song.


Extract from ‘Around Burnopfield’ by John Uren:

On Saturday 26 August 1911, a loaded charabanc, known as a Coronation Car, carrying members of the Consett Co- operative Choir from Consett to an annual contest at Prudhoe, crashed into a tree on Medomsley Bank when its brakes failed. Nine of the choir were killed instantly and a tenth died shortly afterwards; many others were injured. Members of the Burnopfield Ambulance Brigade, who had been attending their annual flower show and sports day in Thompson's field at Bryan's Leap, got into the shafts of their horse-drawn ambulance and manhandled it to Medomsley Bank while someone fetched a horse.

The Pitman’s Poet Tommy Armstrong paid tribute to the dead and injured in the following poem. He didn’t write his commemorative poems to make money, he genuinely felt that he had an obligation to pay tribute in verse.

The Consett Choir Calamity

Scripture tells us very plain to "Think not of to-morrow,"

Because our happiness and joys may quickly turn to sorrow.

How many cases have we known up to the present time

Where death has called away young men and women in their prime.

Some we knew that suffered long in bed, both night and day

And others, in the best of health, were suddenly called away,

When the appointed time has come, to death we cannot say.

"I'm not prepared to go just yet, call back some future day.

Death will take no bribery, or one thing would be sure;

The Rich would live, and Death would only call upon the poor,

We know there's danger everywhere, no matter where we go,

Look at the sad calamity - going to Prudhoe Show.

A happy band of Vocalists from Consett went away,

To join a Singing Competition which was held that day.

The vehicle which they'd engaged at Consett did arrive,

The weather was both fine and fair, and pleasant for a drive.

The vehicle with its passengers which numbered twenty-eight,

Delayed no time at Consett, lest they should be too late;

A pleasant smile was on each face all hearty and so gay.

They all joined in with one accord, to sing while on their way;

They sang with voices loud and sweet, in praise of God on high.

but little thought that afternoon that some of them would die.

Death was riding with them, but little did they know,

That not a one amongst the lot would see the Prudhoe Show.

When they arrived at Medomsley, five passengers were there,

Waiting for to join their friends, their pleasures for to share,

The vehicle stopped and took them in, they each one took their seat,

They moved away, but never thought of danger, or the troubles they would meet.

All went well until they reached a bank both steep and long,

On going down it could be seen that there was something wrong

The vehicle ran much faster than what it ought to go,

The danger that their lives were in not one of them did know

The driver did his very best, the vehicle for to guide,

Thinking of the passengers that he had got inside;

The brake refused to do its work, none of the company knew,

The driver sat and did his best to bring them safely through;

There was no chance of jumping out, 'twas useless for to try,

They had no other chance but sit, which made their end so nigh;

And when he had lost all control - exhausted as could be

The vehicle and its passengers ran smash into a tree.

As soon as the disaster, the news was quickly spread

That twenty-five were injured, and nine were lying dead;

The ambulance, and doctors too, were soon upon the ground

With stimulants and bandages to dress up each one's wound.

One young man named Pearson, was injured so that day,

On going to the Infirmary, he died upon the way.

We hope those Ten have landed safe into the Home above,

Where all is Happiness, and Peace, and Everlasting Love.


Never a rich man, Tommy suffered more and more from want in his declining years. Concert parties and entertainments were arranged to assist him, little enough for a man who had kept Stanley laughing for fifty years. He died at Tantobie on 30th August 1920 at the age of seventy-two. A few lines from his poem 'The Durham Strike' are engraved on his tombstone:

The miners of Northumberland we shall for ever praise,

For being so kind in helping us those tyrannising days;

We thank the other counties too, that have been doing the same

For every man who reads will know that we are not to blame.

The tombstone was unveiled on 9th August 1986 by Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers.

The Works of Tommy Armstrong:

The Trimdon Grange Explosion

The Consett Choir Calamity

The Blanchland Murder

The Durham Strike

Oakey’s Keeker

The Ghost Thit’ Anted Bunty

The Cat Pie

The Hedgehog Pie

Sheel Raw Flud

Dorham Jail

Th’ Row I’ Th’ Guuttor

Marla Hill Ducks

Oakey’s Strike

Corry’s Rat

Tanfeeld Lee Silvor Modil Band

Th’ Skeul Bord Man

Sooth Medomsley Strike

Bobby En Bet

Funny Nuaims It Tanfeeld Pit

Th’ Wheelbarrow Man

Th’ Row Between Th’ Cages

Nanny’s A Maisor

Stanla Market

Th’ Borth E Th’ Lad

Th’ Nue Ralewae

Tanfield Brake

The Kaiser And The War

Murder of Mary Donnelly

Old Folks Tea

Reference: ‘Polisses & Candymen’ Edited by Ross Forbes Published by The Tommy Armstrong Memorial Trust.

WHY NOT LOG ON TO THE FARNE FOLK ARCHIVE RESOURCE (LINK BELOW), home of Northumbrian music online. From here you can access 4,000 songs, tunes, sound recordings and photographs from across North East England, bringing the musical heritage of the region alive. Folk Archive Resource North East is an online archive of songs, tunes and sound recordings from Northumbria created by Gateshead Council, the Sage Gateshead and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The archive features a number of original song books and manuscripts by Tommy Armstrong.

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The following poem was received by E.Mail. We are pleased to publish it:


Six hundred years of sweat and toil

In that deep and dark abyss

The entrepreneur has spoken

Blown a tasteless goodbye kiss

Two hundred men and boys

Crushed and gassed and drowned

New Hartley, 1862

Beneath that cold, cold ground

At Burradon, 1860

Seventy six were burnt and maimed

They were only slaves and chattels

No need to be ashamed

No sick pay, no such benefit

No mercy from the rich

Like the Irish in the famine

Left to die within that ditch

Families torn asunder

Communities destroyed

Where the hell was the compassion?

The obligations null and void

We will not forget you Thatcher

And your heartless decimation

Your ultimate achievement

A bitter, divided nation

Northern coal helped build this country

While the Irish laid the rails

Betrayal comes easier than honour

All that are left are old men’s tales.

Written By John Robinson Northumberland, UK following the closure of Ellington Colliery (The Big E)


A new local book has been published about Tommy Armstrong – ‘The Pitman Poet’. The book was launched at the Lamplight Centre, Stanley on Thursday 18th November at 11 o’clock.

The launch was a huge success with a room packed full of people clamouring for a copy, each one signed by the author.

Tommy’s famous songs include such classics as ‘Dorham Jail’, ‘Nanny’s A Maisor’ and ‘Trimdon Grange Explosion’.

What makes this book unique is that it has been written by Tommy’s grandson – Ray Tilly pictured below.


“Ray was born at Eighton Banks in 1934, he attended Chester-le-Street Grammar School then became a Police Cadet with Durham Constabulary for 18 months. In 1952 he joined the Army and was stationed at Windsor for three years then on leaving the Army, he stayed in the south and joined the Police Service. Ray spent many of his 30 years service in the Criminal Investigation Department and he rose to the rank of Chief Superintendent before retiring from Thames Valley Police in 1985. He settled in Buckinghamshire, where he still lives, then worked as a Security Consultant until he retired in 2002. Since then, he has been engaged with researching the family history of his wife’s and his own ancestors.”

Ray’s book is an attempt to ‘set the record straight’ about the life of his grandfather.

Many things have been written and said about Tommy, and Ray separates fact from fiction.

Included in the book are thirty previously published works by Tommy and a further sixteen unpublished works.

Also included are the poems and story of Tommy’s son – William Hunter Armstrong – Ray’s father.

The book is published by Newcastle company Summerhill Books and is priced £9.99. The book has over 100 illustrations.

For further information contact Andrew Clark on 07971 859 401



The launch of the book ‘Tommy Armstrong: The Pitman Poet’ by his grandson Ray Tilly, was held at the Lamplight Arts Centre, Stanley on the 18th November 2010 where Ray met Moira Corker who is linked to the Armstrong family. Moira had a number of works by both Tommy and his son William Hunter Armstrong which she kindly gave to Ray. Amongst them are a number which have never been published so Ray has compiled them into a book, with an explanation of how they have been found after all these years. Of particular interest is the fact that it was always thought Tommy must have written about the tragic ‘West Stanley Explosion’ in 1909, when 168 men and boys were killed at Burns Pit but no copy of a poem could ever be found in recent years. Tommy’s poem about that disaster is included in the book.

The book is only available by sending postage stamps to the value of £1.20 and a cheque for £2.50 to ‘The Tommy Armstrong Society’, c/o 10 Rupert Avenue, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, HP12 3NL.



A memorial plaque has been attached to the gate of the Tanfield Cemetery, a fitting tribute to Tommy.