A Beacon to Light the Way…


Spennymoor Settlement was one of a number set up in the North of England, modelled on Toynbee Hall, (named after social reformer Arnold Toynbee) which had been established in the east end of London, and came into being through the commitment of a Liverpool man, William George Farrell. After studying at Toynbee Hall himself, in 1930 Bill conducted a survey into the effects of the depression on provincial theatrical companies. Through this he became aware of the social problems of the Durham Coalfield, and the following winter began another project, to establish the area most in need of help from the settlement movement. His study picked out Spennymoor (where unemployment was 35% of the adult population) and where most of the unemployed were miners who had nowhere to go, not even a public library.

Funding for the project came from The Pilgrim Trust, founded by oil tycoon Edward Stephen Harkness, a New Yorker of Scottish extraction. Being childless, he had decided to distribute his wealth charitably, and they had been moved by the sheer number of appeals for financial help coming from Great Britain in the 1920s, to make an endowment of £2 million through a Board of British Trustees chaired by Stanley Baldwin, who is probably best remembered for serving as British Prime Minister from 1935-37.

Bill made the settlement a residential one by moving into the area, along with his wife Betty (Elizabeth Ceridwen) so as to experience at first hand the difficulties being faced. The Settlement opened on 1 April 1931 in a disused shop, 38 King Street, and Bill and Betty lived in the rooms above. The scope of Spennymoor Settlement was never intended to be limited. Its doors were open to all, not just to miners, or even just to the unemployed, although the town and its environs had more than enough of those. Its aim was ‘to encourage tolerant neighbourliness and voluntary social services and to give to its members opportunities for increasing their knowledge, widening their interests, and cultivating their creative powers in a friendly atmosphere’. Those who came may have found the terminology, borrowed from the pilot scheme, rather confusing. They took the term ‘Common Room’ as implying that the users were common people, and Bill Farrell’s title of ‘Warden’ was generally misinterpreted as ‘warder’, although this was to be no prison – rather its intent was to set minds free to soar to new heights.

It was natural enough that early activities centred around what Bill and Betty could offer themselves. They began with a Sketching Club, born out of their interest in painting, and later added a Play Reading Group, which very quickly developed into the Settlement Community Players – forerunner of today’s locally respected Everyman Theatre Company, whose members (miners wives) were discussing the works of Anton Chekhov with a depth of knowledge and enlightenment that amazed the great writer’s British agent, and were even amongst the first in the country to study “The Method” school of acting, originated by Constantin Stanislavski. Their first play was put on in 1934 by a small group of women, mainly wives of miners, and the production utilised the skills of the Carpentry Group to make sets. A Dean and Chapter Colliery miner, Sid Chaplin, was encouraged to write plays, and Sid went on to become a leading northern writer in the 1950s and 60s. Practical classes in shoe repair and carpentry came next, with needlework for the women members. It was often claimed that The Settlement “mended souls,while it mended soles”. They added a male voice choir and a children’s playgroup, followed by studies in a variety of subjects, plus the first public lending library in Spennymoor, which Betty ran herself.

The national press were quick to dub the Settlement ‘The Miners Academy’ (later ‘The Pitman’s Academy’) although the fact that the press were even noticing stemmed from a visit in December 1934 by the Prince of Wales during his tour of depressed areas, when he expressed astonishment at the quality of the paintings being exhibited.

In 1935 theatrical success was recognised by an award from the Government Commission for Depressed Areas towards the building of a small theatre, the outer wall of which was adorned by a sandstone sculpture, the work of internationally celebrated artist Tisa von Hess – the late Countess Elizabeth Von Der Schulenberg, oriinally adorned the outside of the building, and this was one of the reasons for the building being awarded Grade II listing. Suffering from the ravages of time and the elements, the sculpture has now been given a place of honour in the main hall, where it is on permanent display, and a copy of the original work can now be seen in its place. Tisa’s brother was executed by the Nazis, for his part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. Towards the end of her life, she joined a convent and became known as Sister Paula. The history of the photograph reproduced here is uncertain. It’s believed that it shows the original stonemason and his apprentice (names unknown) fixing the carving in position and was taken around 1938/9. If anyone has any information about the stonemason or his apprentice, then Spennymoor Today – The History and Heritage Society would appreciate them contacting us, either by email to spennymoor.today@yahoo.co.uk or by using the form at the foot of this article.

Settlement Stonemason c 1938

The Settlement stonemason and his young apprentice c. 1938 (Spennymoor Today)

The modern day Settlement was refurbished to a very high standard in 2008, thanks to a series of grants, including £140,000 from Sedgefield Borough Council and £50,000 from The Heritage Lottery Fund which gave the green light to plans to conserve and develop Spennymoor’s Grade II listed building. The awards ensured that all necessary funding was in place for the £225,650 project, which gave the well-loved community building a new lease of life for many years to come. The Everyman Theatre also benefited from a grant of £18,000 from Arts North East, for the provision of new stage lighting. Dr. Keith Bartlett, Regional Manager of the Heritage Lottery Fund said, “This is a great local project that has been put together thanks to the dedication of the volunteers involved. The conversion work will mean that even more members of the local community will be able to make use of the building for a wider variety of activities”.

The official reopening of the newly refurbished facility was performed on Friday 6th March 2009, by Lord and Lady Foster. Lord Foster, formerly Rt. Hon. Derek Foster MP, outlined the important part the Settlement had played in rejuvenating Spennymoor during the days of depression when unemployment was high. In doing so, he paid tribute to those who had been a part of one or other of the groups which originally met inside its walls – artists like Tom McGuinness, Norman Cornish and writer Sid Chaplin amongst others. To officially open the building, refurbished at a cost of about £300,000, a ribbon stretched across the stage was simultaneously cut by not one but eight people – Lord Foster, Marion Jackson (secretary) Sylvia Dobson (president) and David Acock (chair) on behalf of the Settlement Association together with pupils representing four Spennymoor schools: Thomas Barratt (Kirk Merrington) Daniel Guthrie (The Oaks) Chloe Young (Ox Close) and Niamh Fegan (King Street).

Tisa Hess ended her days as a nun (archive)

The audience at a modern day Settlement event (Spennymoor Today)

If you have any Spennymoor related memories or images you’d like to share, please contact us by email: spennymoor.today@yahoo.co.uk