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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March 2008, 16:06 GMT
White Season

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.

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Villagers in Easington voice their opinion


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