The Prudhoe Miners' Race was only a fixture on the local running circuit for around 25 years. But it has stayed in the area’s consciousness and is now being revived as an Olympic legacy event. Jane Hall reports.
LIFE at the coal face has always been tough. Even now in the 21st Century where advances in technology and machinery have helped temper the hard, physical labour needed to work underground, mining is still a dangerous and arduous occupation.
Turn the clock back a century, however, and the conditions were truly horrific. At the industry’s height in the 1920s, 1.2 million men were working in the terrifyingly claustrophobic environment of Britain’s pits.
The hours were long, the work backbreaking and the risk of injury or death from flooding, gas explosions, roof collapses or accidents ever present.
In the third decade of the 20th Century around 2,000 men died in mining accidents every year. Many more succumbed to illness and disease as a direct result of toiling hour after hour underground in poorly lit, cramped, dust-filled and deafeningly noisy conditions.
It is hard to imagine that those who were employed in Britain’s most hazardous industry had either the time or energy to take on other physically challenging activities in their free time.
But it was against this harsh backdrop that sometime around 1920 the Prudhoe Miners’ Race began.
An arduous five-mile competitive contest, it tapped into the popularity at that time among miners for long distance running events (probably because it was a cheap pursuit).
For the next quarter of a century or so, the race was a much anticipated fixture on the local sporting calendar. But after the Second World War it ran – quite literally – out of steam, at about the same time that pits which for 100 years had been the backbone of Prudhoe’s local economy also went into decline.
The race and the many and varied characters who lifted the trophy have stayed in the local psyche, however. So much so that it was revived as a one-off millennium event in September 2000.
Now the Prudhoe Miners’ Race is again being resurrected to celebrate London 2012 and the fact the town will be the first place in Tynedale to welcome the Olympic flame on June 16 as it makes its journey through the North East. This time, though, the run – which was officially re-launched earlier this month by North East Olympic running legend Charlie Spedding who took bronze in the marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles games – will hopefully be back to stay.
Prudhoe Town Council wants to see a revamped miners’ race once again become an annual sporting fixture to commemorate for generations to come, not just the day the Olympic magic came to Tynedale, but the area’s proud industrial heritage.
Seventy years ago the Prudhoe Miners’ Race was an all-male affair. Now women will be among the hundreds of runners who will line-up on July 15 as the reborn race is put under starters orders. It is to be hoped that in the years to come the race – which is being organised by Team Decathlon, the athletics club behind the popular Run Northumberland series of half marathon and 10k events – spawns as many celebrated competitors as the original.
Local runner Jack Appleby is recorded as the victor of its first outing. In the mid-1920s Archer “Archie” Pattison won the race three times in a row and was allowed to keep the winner’s trophy.
According to Jim Standish, who helped compile the local history book, A Prudhoe Likeness, which has a section on the original race, Pattison was teetotal.
But he joined the Conservative and Unionist Club on Prudhoe’s West Road so he could compete in the race. This was at a time when the area was predominantly working class, and Pattison was employed in an industry where everyone was expected to be a staunch Labour Party supporter.
Jim says: “I do not know whether he had Tory leanings rather than being a Labour supporter, but as far as I am aware his affiliation was simply a sporting one.”