Thursday, 15 March 2012

Chopwell Soviets FC and County Durham's Little Moscow

"CHOPWELL Officials are ready to resign from the Division One after enduring a traumatic start to the campaign. Chopwell, who have had a team in the Northern Alliance for twelve years, won promotion to the Premier Division for the 2003-2004 season but were immediately relegated - and things have not gone well since." - Newcastle Evening Chronicle, November 17th 2010.

When the nine-day General Strike was called on May 4th 1926, Chopwell's miners had already been out for a year in a dispute that began over wage cuts and working hours.  Marchers stripped the Union Jack from the front of the council office and replaced it with the hammer and sickle.  A Communist Sunday school was set up, copies of Marx were subsituted for bibles on church lecterns, and a new banner - replacing a 1907 image of pioneering Labour MP J.W. Taylor - was unveiled by the Irish trades unionist James Larkin, bearing portraits of Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and James Keir Hardie. When the Flying Scotsman, carrying hundreds of passengers, was derailed outside Cramlington in protest at trains continuing to transport coal in defiance of the lock-out, miners from the village were alleged to be among the forty or so men involved. A new police division was created specifically to deal with Chopwell, while the local press howled in outrage. “Under the Red Banner,” “Clutching Hand of Communism” and “Spectre of a Miniature Russia” the Newcastle Chronicle wrote; other newspapers called it the “reddest village in England.” Today, more than forty years after Chopwell Colliery closed for good, there are still streets named after Hardie, Marx and Lenin, and people who remember the village by its former nickname: Little Moscow.

Chopwell's Communist Club -  funded by Kodak UK managing director George Davison and one of only three anywhere in the country - was established in December 1913, a fortnight into a strike at the pit. In what the police later called "a strange coincidence", on the same night the club opened its doors twenty-six coal trucks were set loose down a hill in the village, causing £3,000 worth of damage to a colliery railway. "The Chopwell boys came in their dozens, each an embryo fighter," one of those in attendance at an Anarchist conference held in Newcastle the following year observed approvingly. Between the wars militancy in the village - located between Blaydon and Consett in the north-west of the County Durham coalfield - ebbed and flowed. "The only Communist there on May 1st 1926 was a young lad who had joined the Party in his teens," noted R. Page Arnot. "Three months later I addressed the Chopwell Communists on a hillside as no hall would hold the 200 members present." By the the mid-1930s, there were only four card-carrying members left.

In Little Moscows, wrote Stuart Macintyre in the March 1979 issue of Marxism Today, "workers' sport (was)...part of an affirmative endeavour to create their own style of living".  As in other mining areas, much of the support, funding and players for Chopwell's football clubs came directly from its colliery.  Chopwell Institute gained membership of the Northern Football Alliance in 1919, winning the first of two titles in their second season in the league. Club officials later attempted to change the name to Chopwell Soviets only for the Durham FA to vehemently refuse its registration. George McNestry, who went on to make over 250 appearances in a professional career spanning Leeds United, Sunderland, Luton, Bristol Rovers and Coventry, and Billy Bell, later of Lincoln, Leicester City and Torquay, both started out at the club. Tommy Dawson played for Stoke City and Clapton Orient; Charlie Parker, once of Stoke, Sunderland and Carlisle United, made the opposite journey, finishing his playing days with Institute at the tail-end of the 1920s.  In 1936, Institute were joined by Chopwell Colliery, the new club lifting the inaugural Northern Alliance Cup at the close of their first season. Chopwell Top Club were later members of the Alliance from 1998 to 2006; the last remaining village team, Chopwell Officials Club, folded in November 2010 when their secretary and manager resigned and no replacements could be found. In Village VoiceIan Cusack  memorably wrote of a visit to Officials Club in what would turn out to be their final full season. "Eventually we came across a blasted heath masquerading as Warsaw circa 1972...the pitch was scarred by the efforts of burrowing rodents, resulting in a home substitute catching a somnolent rabbit, breaking its neck and throwing the corpse behind the goal for a pair of Jack Russell terriers to squabble over. We weren't among the Cafe Society here." The pitch - now used as a venue for Tesco skills coaching sessions - is reached by a path from the intersection of Lenin and Marx Terrace (Joseph Terrace and Frederick Street are both nearby).  A Newcastle United top dries on a line beside a Stella Artois parasol, there's a boy scout hut with bricked-up windows and a sign for a lost Border Collie sellotaped to a streetlight.  Like the rest of the village, the ground is well maintained, with white rails around the touchline, painted huts for dugouts and a park bench overlooking the cricket pitch. I don't get any closer than a locked gate by a bowling green. "Lovely morning, isn't it?" says a man out walking his dog.

Autumn in the ancient forest of Chopwell Woodlands Park

The mine itself has long since disappeared, marked only by a pit wheel at the side of a street.  They'd been digging for coal in Chopwell as early as 1530, though it took the arrival of the Consett Iron Company in 1896 for industrial-scale mining to commence.  By the mid-1920s two thousand men and boys were working three different shafts, but the final seam closed the year England won the World Cup and on January 28th 1967 Chopwell's mining history came to a full stop.  The village's radicalism has proved more enduring, often lingering in the most surprising of places.  In the early-1950s the colliers presented their banner to a delegation led by the president of the central committee of Soviet mineworkers. It was temporarily exhibited in Gorlovka, the east Ukrainian mining town where future Tottenham and West Ham United striker Serhiy Rebrov was raised, before being taken for display in the Moscow Trades Hall. A replacement was unfurled by Arthur Horner, founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, jailed volunteer in James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army and then General Secretary of the NUM, in the centre circle of Chopwell's football pitch in 1954.  Almost half a century later, the French Miners' Federation paraded it behind the World Cup winners as they marched in triumph through the centre of Paris.


  1. I did a Teaching Practice at Chopwell Secondary Modern School in 1971. Some of the students had grandparents who were involved in the 1926 strike and they were knowledgeable and eloquent about it. One of my fellow students came from rural Worcestershire and was amazed and worried that there were streets named after Marx, Engels and Lenin. I think he had voted for Ted Heath and his Merry Tories in the 70 election.
    Highfield United had a decent team in the 60's - I remember them beating Shildon in a Durham Challenge Cup tie at Dean Street.

  2. are you on twitter? I'd love to retweet this and share.

  3. Hi Michael
    Where did you get the info on chopwell communist club?
    I'm after whatever I can find.

  4. MacIntyre's Red Strongholds Between the Wars is a good starting point. There was also a BBC doc on Britain's Little Moscows.