Photo: Richard Doughty
Already the villages were losing people to the Lancashire textile mills and the thriving coal mines in nearby Durham. More people were lost to the "Great War" of 1914-1918. One of Fremie's earliest memories is of seeing the soldiers march away to distant battlefields. "All the woman were waving good-bye...."
In those days large families was the norm but they generally lived in cramped conditions with two or three families to a small cottage. The small Arkengarthdale community was still at this time able to support 60 pupils at the local school. At the end of the school day the younger children would play tag on the spoil heaps above the village.
But these were harsh times. Every family scraped for a living and children after rudimentary education were expected to do their bit. Fremie left school at the age of 14 and went to work as a farm hand for his uncle and subsequently on a local estate as under-cowman. His father worked in the mines and in 1934 when the estate on which he worked was sold he went to join his father in the mines. He worked first in the chert quarries, next at Pryse Mine and later at Hurst mine in the 1950's when the company tried in vain to re-open the lead mines.
If it is true that the streets of Paris are paved with chert from Swaledale it is doubtful that few Parisians knew of its origins or the difficulties with which it was won from the Earth. "Chert mining was the toughest. It was blocks of blue flint....... hard, very hard."
Later in the mines Fremie walked four miles to work and then a further mile underground to hammer and drill by the light of a candle. "If the candle wouldn't burn it meant the air was bad and they scarpered."
In winter it seemed that his whole life was spent in the dark. "It was dark when I left home, dark underground and dark when I got back home". But it was not all bad underground there was warmth and respite from the freezing cold and dry places where he could eat huge pies - "pies so large we called them cartwheels."
The chert miners were paid per shift until the managers realised they would get more "graft" (hard work) if they paid by the ton. The lead miners were paid by the fathom (six foot) as they tunnelled forward deep into the hillside. "If a chap found a good vein he would stay by it and have his food brought to him. Some stayed for days until the vein was worked out."
After the Hurst mine closed Fremie went prospecting on his own land. "Mother was tapping with a hammer and found the vein and I dug it out. I carried it all (three tons) in buckets down to the farm - there wasn't a road - and sent it to Newcastle." The lead sold for £110 per ton a princely sum in those days. He was lucky for shortly afterwards the price plummeted to just £11 per ton. Cheap imports and new materials such as plastics did the damage.
"But I was the last to find lead and send it away - me and my father together on our own estate."
Tools used by the miners (Richmondshire Museum)
In 1947 Fremie married Gwen from the Rhonda valley in Wales another famous mining area. The couple had two children and for a time kept the Tan Hill pub. He could not though resist the odd mining expedition. "When I had a day spare I'd go and get coal, peat to. It didn't burn well, though." He moved on from Tan Hill to the Temperance Hotel in Reeth and then took a job at Catterick Camp finally buying the Old Gallery in Reeth for he and Gwen to retire to though unfortunately she died a month before they were due to move in. Now he spends his time playing dominoes with his friends and is an upstanding member of the Reeth Parliament a group of pensioners who meet for daily morning chats and set the world to rights in the village bus shelter.
With the mines gone and the spoil heaps no longer visible Reeth and the surrounding area has returned fully to its former picturesque glory. Does he enjoy walking on the stunningly beautiful hills? "Walk? I've done my share of walking when I used to got out to work. To me when I see them all out walking with their little packs on their backs it's a toil not a pleasure." So say's the last lead miner in Swaledale! Go there to get a different perspective! (Webmaster).
Fremie's only remaining family photo. He is in the centre
Fremie with this father
* Arkengarthdale is a small village near Reeth about six miles to the east of Richmond. Click here for a map of the area.
See also: Swaledale's Mining Heritage
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(Adapted from an article by Jenny Needham, The Northern Echo, 5 October 1998. The photographs and source article are used with kind permission of the Northern Echo and Jenny Needham)