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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March 2008, 12:25 GMT
The whitest place in England
Easington Colliery village, Tommy Butler, and the logo of Easington Council

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

There's no whiter place in England and Wales than Easington in County Durham. As a survey finds white working class people feel forgotten and dejected, what do the people in this former colliery town think?

Where Easington colliery stood, there is now virtually nothing. Just the jet black monument to a disappeared past, made from the cages that once took thousands of men underground.

Face east and there is the cold North Sea. Look west and there are the streets and streets of cramped Victorian colliery homes, the inspiration for many a Geordie folk song. But the streets are not as they once were.

Easington, Co Durham
Look around the corner now, there's nothing, that's why you have the kids on the streets drinking
Tommy Butler

This is Easington in County Durham, racially the whitest place in England and Wales according to the only reliable measure we have, the 2001 Census. You may have seen it in the cinema: it was the set for Billy Elliot, the story of a miner's lad who joins the Royal Ballet.

But it's also the local authority where you are most likely to meet someone who is white and least likely to meet someone who is from any other ethnic background.

And there is a simple reason.

Easington was one of a string of colliery villages that rose as the pit shafts were sunk in the 19th Century. The East Durham population exploded and communities were born. But when the pits went in the 1990s, many of those who could leave did - but nobody else moved in.

If you want to find out what the English white working classes think, then this area of the country is a pretty good place to start.

Loss of trust

On the way up to the pit monument, past markers of key moments in the area's history, I meet Tommy Butler.

 Easington Colliery's lift cage
Monument: Easington Colliery's lift cage
"Aye without a doubt, there's no ways about it, I'm working class. To think what I've done for 34 years down the pit, man and boy.

"When I left school in the 60s you could say, I'll go to the steelworks, or I'll go to the pit. I went to the pit because all my family were there.

"There was always something for you, but look around the corner now, there's nothing, that's why you have the kids on the streets drinking."

According to a Newsnight poll for the BBC's special White season, a majority of white working class Britons feel nobody speaks for people like them. In most areas covered by the poll working class people were more negative about Britain than people from other backgrounds.

The question is why.

The white working class, which is basically most people, have resolved themselves to being ignored on pretty much all political decisions
L Evans, Birmingham

Tommy Butler says it comes down to a sense of betrayal shared by communities like his - a betrayal that has not eased with the arrival of New Labour.

"I've got no time at all for politicians, I don't trust them. I was staunch Labour all my life but I cannot vote for them now - there is no difference between Conservative and Labour, they're all the same. We had Prime Minister Tony Blair with his constituency house [in nearby Trimdon] and we were totally let down."

A lot of people in Easington share Tommy's views - they talk of abandonment and the loss of a proud culture built on hard work; a culture where families stood side-by-side against adversity.

Uphill struggles

The saga over Easington Colliery's former school is a metaphor for the area's problems.

Pride of the village: Easington Colliery school, 1914
Pride of the village: Easington Colliery school, 1914
The grand listed Victorian building is a derelict, dramatic presence, dominating the modest colliery homes around it. Local folk want something done - but no answer has been found.

Ask them if they agree with the poll that white working class people are ignored and they point to the school. As one man said, "I think there are people who want to forget about us."

Easington District Council recognises the uphill struggle the area faces. Regeneration and new jobs have come more easily to other towns destroyed by the loss of industry.

The area has battled to find a new economic future but believes there are real reasons to be optimistic. The population is stabilising after years of flight. New homes are being built. The council has a snazzy modern brand depicting a man springing forwards, looking to the future.

Easington Colliery School
School today: Empty for 10 years
Ann Cowley runs the Glebe community centre in Murton, one of the other pit villages in the district. She says the former miners' welfare club, which could have gone the way of the pit itself, rose from the ashes.

She cautions against believing that areas like hers have been forgotten about because they are white or working class. The key is to look forwards, without forgetting the past, she believes.

"I think living in a village like this you cannot get away from the roots. The pride is still very much there. The grandparents who worked in the coalfields instil that pride in the generations that are coming after them. I think the sense of community values is very strong, the sense of pride in the heritage that has been the coalfields."

Ann's message is clear - but does it struggle to be heard against jigsaw pieces of anxiety over the future?

Changing generations

Over the hill is Seaham, the former site of three massive collieries, I meet local amateur historians David Angus, Brian Scollen and Brian Slee. The trio have collected thousands of images of east Durham's past, lovingly restored and published on their website.

Brian Scollen, David Angus and Brian Slee
Local history: Trio fear loss of heritage
Looking at the old pictures, Brian Scollen says people feel they have been abandoned.

"More than 5,000 people around here had lives directly or indirectly touched upon by the collieries," he says. "They pulled the rug. People in politics don't come down to our level, we're just numbers."

Brian Slee's sadness over the past is turning into bewilderment over how society is changing because of immigration - and its effect on those with the most to lose.

"My youngest son has trained in catering and he can't get a job. But how come there has been an influx of Poles. To me, it just doesn't make sense to bring in foreigners, white or black, whatever they may be, when there doesn't seem to be the work for our own unemployed, our own children."

Seaham itself is now seeing that change. While the 2001 census showed it had the absolute least number of people born abroad, there are now a few Poles in the area - including drivers on the buses to and from Sunderland.

And Ann Cowley at the Glebe centre says that the children are now showing the way forward for working people in the colliery communities - children who are being raised to understand their local history - but also the reality of modern Britain.

"We have seen a trickle of people from overseas," she says. "Within the schools we have seen the arrival of Polish people and people from Asia. I have a grand-daughter and the children take it extremely well. You don't see any problems with racism."

BBC Two's White Season starts on Friday evening with Last Orders, a film about a working men's club in Bradford. See internet links for the white season website.

Some of your comments on this story:

The reason some white people feel ignored is the same reason some men feel there's an unfair proportion of support groups for their problems - because they sat there expecting everything to come to them on a plate.
Jo, Cambridge, UK

While I may be one of the liberal middle class now, with a professional job and a decent education, I do not forget where I am from: a working class area of Middlesbrough. The aspirations of the working classes have been left behind while the political institutions that were supposed to protect them have not done so. Politicians complain about the levels of apathy among voters now - this is one of the reasons. The reality of the collapse of the working class is an issue that the comfortable political classes would rather pretend is not there.
Darren Stephens, Whitby, UK

I think its shocking the way white, working class people have just been ignored at the expense of foreigners. When are politicians going to address these issues? And don't call me racist - my family is Anglo-Indian.
Jeremy Bridge, Blackfen

Would it be possible to send the "reporter" to a town where the ethnic split is as close to 50/50 as possible? I believe you would find a more honest answer to the questions. It's very easy for people to be against something when everything they see around them is all they know. This planet is full of diversity, but we still come back to ethnicity, instead of letting it go.
Tony Doyle, Holmes Chapel, UK

Editor's note: See this story from 2005. We should remember it was the white working class that built this country.
Phil Dyson, Leeds

I think it is crucial that the white working class is represented in all political matters as should be all forms of race and gender. As a Christian I believe we are all God's people and we should not compartmentalise race as we do, especially through positive discrimination. If we keep everything as one people then we would only draw comparisons between the class system and not white, black, and Asian
Ian Gray, Leeds

All they have to do is open their minds, move to London or such city and try and build a future for themselves. A lot of ethnic minorities that do make it here come from abroad leave behind families. They are open minded enough to search for a future for themselves in a different country. Working class complainers should think about doing some leg work or brain work instead of moaning, moaning and moaning 'we've been forgotten'.

My Grandparents taught me when you get knocked down you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and you start all over again. Nothing in life is handed to you on a silver platter and there's no point in wallowing over what you had if you don't have it anymore. "This is the hand life has dealt me, so I might as well get on and play it"
James B, Sheffield, UK

Your article shows an unhealthy obsession with racial identity. It is the functioning of global capitalism, and our government's refusal to countenance trying to control or plan economic development, that creates the terrible blight on these communities. This is why socialism needs to get back on to the political agenda. As for immigrants - we all know that they are encouraged in order to keep wages low. It isn't their fault. Let's talk about the real issues, please.
Paul Lockwood, Cambridge UK

Before the 1960's an area like this losing its key employers would also have lost its population as the locals moved out to where the work was. This happened throughout history as towns and villages grew and fell with the economic tide. The benefit system destroyed the incentive to move on and created regions full of people eking out a poor living on benefits and moaning that no-one was bringing 'real work' to their door. The old mining and steel communities of the North East are the archetypes of that problem where vast sums have and are being spent allowing communities to avoid the reality that surrounds them.
Ian, Preston

There won't be problems with racism as ethnic 'outsiders' have novelty value and do not exist in numbers anywhere great enough to pose a threat to the existing community. Bigger influx of foreign workers = lower wages and less jobs for existing British workforce.
Adrian, Basingstoke

I live in Murton and it's changing with all the new builds. More people live there but work elsewhere - it just needs the main shopping street to be rebuilt
Paul Stevenson, Murton, Co Durham

I see no problem with the eroding of such heritages. I feel that small town mentalities are damaging, backward and non progressive. I listen to work colleagues (who think that coming into Newcastle is a major trip) from such areas and the racism, xenophobia and narrow mindedness is horrendous.
Robbie Thompson, Newcastle Upon Tyne

We live in a multi cultural society and have to compete in an international employment market. It's more than a quarter of a century since the miners strike and the sooner people diversify their skills and compete in the market, the better.
Philip, Leicester

Well, here you have Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown's legacy - you can't get anymore clearer than this.
Shane Bailey, Ramsgate, Kent

If the white working class has no voice it is because they have nothing interesting to say. Let's have a little less self pity and a bit more creative thinking. The past is not coming back, ever. So what do you want to build to replace it?
Allotment Harry, Birkenhead

Residents of Easington give their views


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