Seghill Colliery Manager

Location of Seghill and Burradon Collieries (click to enlarge)

When James Fryer died at Blyth in Mar 1911 the Blyth News and Wansbeck Telegraph carried this family notice:
 Husband of late Margaret M Fryer and son of the late John Fryer of Burradon Colliery. Internment at Horton churchyard on Thursday. Cortege leaving residence at 2pm. All invited.
James' father John had died in 1888, but was still considered influential enough to be mentioned in this notice. John Fryer was born in 1822 the 4th generation of ordinary, Newcastle pitmen. By the time of his death in 1888 he had been the long-time manager of both Seghill and Burradon collieries, a licensee of the Ship Inn at Byker and a property developer of a shop and seventeen terraced dwellings in four blocks at Burradon.

Fryer's Terrace Burradon (part of) 1901 Now a Millennium Green
Alan Carr Unveils a Memorial on Fryer's Millennium Green  Oct 2011
John is the 3XG grandfather of the comedian Alan Carr, who was a subject of the BBC genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? Eleven of Alan's ancestors perished in the Burradon Mining Disaster of 1860, where seventy-six men and boys died in an underground explosion. John Fryer was heavily involved in the relief efforts and shortly after the disaster became colliery manager (Viewer) at Burradon. The pit explosion was investigated by the WDYTYA? team, but the recording ended up on the cutting room floor. John Fryer was also researched by the team. It is clear he was an interesting character, rising from such a lowly position to great achievements. But after extensive searching, surprisingly, no newspaper obituary could be found to have been written about John. This would have quickly unlocked the secrets of his success, but it was not to be.

So, what could I actually piece together from available evidence as to how John became so successful?

In 1841 as a 17 year old he was living in a basic, and probably quite squalid, pitman's dwelling at the still fairly new Seghill Colliery, which was part of a row of terraced housing. Both he and his father are listed as coal miners. By 1851, although he was still living in basic pitman accommodation at Seghill, he was now married with with a young family and was enumerated on the census as an Overman. An Overman was a senior supervisor within the colliery and his father, living two doors away, was also listed as having this occupation. What stood out from the census returns, though, was that John was employing a 15 year old girl as a live-in servant. This was surely a highly unusual practice for an ordinary pitman living in basic housing?

Seghill Colliery Housing

Seghill Colliery c1860
John had married Alice Barrass in 1844, not at the local parish church, but the more prestigious St Andrews in Newcastle. He signed the marriage register, so was clearly literate  His bride was unable to sign and left a mark. Interestingly, John's signature was bold with lots of embellishments and right sloping, which the graphologists speculate is the sign of a confident, outgoing person. He was described on the register as a labourer, but his bride's father was a butcher. The Barrasses were upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial and had some useful connections. They soon after this date became publicans at the Blake Arms in Seghill and later still became ship owners. John had chosen a good family to marry into. Was this good fortune or ambition? By the late 1850s and early 1860s John was largely responsible for the day-to-day operations at both Seghill and Burradon collieries being titled resident viewer or underviewer.

It was not until 1872 that colliery managers (viewers) were required to take an exam before being issued with a certificate of competency. The situation prior to this date is described by Peter Ford Mason in "The Pit Sinkers of Northumberland and Durham":
The ‘viewer’ was the [owner’s] ‘eyes and ears’ who took care of his mining investment by daily inspections, with particular responsibility for ‘free communication of air through all the works’. Colliery viewers were trained as mining engineers, with under-viewers and apprentice viewers obtaining practical experience before promotion to the senior position. They often had a background in surveying in the coal industry, and were sometimes introduced to this position at an early age.
Newcastle Journal 11 Sep 1858
John's distant relation Thomas Fryar, born 1830 in Wallsend, kept a journal from the late 1830s until his death. He was enrolled at a school for poor children in Newcastle from the age of six until starting down the pit at age ten. The school was financed from donations from wealthy residents. During the long miners strike of 1844 he took advantage of the employment break to return to education and improve his literacy, enrolling himself at a school on Barrass Bridge, Newcastle. Miners were also beginning to give their children a basic education through the Methodist Church organisation. However, Thomas was probably more enlightened than most of his contemporaries. This self-education was to prove instrumental in Thomas' later success in pioneering new settlements in Australia. Perhaps John also followed a similar path to Thomas and showed an exceptional ability in academic subjects.

John Fryer Grave at Killingworth, St Johns
Charles Carr 1862
The viewer and part owner of Burradon and Seghill Collieries during the 1850s was Charles Carr who was from  an extremely well-to-do local family. We can only speculate that he saw talent, potential and ambition in John Fryer to promote him so rapidly, even trusting him to guide Prince Napoleon, cousin of the French Emperor, on an official visit to the local collieries. John does briefly appear in some contemporary publications: presiding over a concert in aid of the Hartley Pit victims in 1862, as one of the committee for prosecution of felons and in a legal dispute with an employee over payment of debts. It is difficult to surmise from these brief snippets as to John's character as they are often conflicting. His workers at Burradon Colliery actually presented him with an engraved watch in 1858 when he left to take up a new position, but presumably he would have had some amount of ruthlessness and would have not been universally popular.

We will probably never know the full story?