When we started this project we didn’t expect to find out very much that was new about the story Heartbreak Hill. We always imagined our contribution would be the archaeological approach to the site and the use of fieldwork. The history of the site has been looked into quite thoroughly by Malcolm Chase and Mark Whyman who wrote a book about it. They went through the records in the Pennyman family papers and in some papers relating to the other members of the scheme. Consequently, we imagined that pretty much everything that could be got at through historical sources had been…
However, when examining the Swarland records I have come across a letter from James Pennyman to Mr Nott, the secretary of the Fountains Abbey Settler’s Society. The reason that this has not been examined by earlier historians of Heartbreak Hill is that the Fountains Abbey Settler’s Society papers are not yet catalogued (though fortunately work on this is being carried out right now). This means there has never been any reason to suspect that information about Heartbreak Hill was held in them; I certainly wouldn’t have looked there if I hadn’t also been working on Swarland.
The letter was an attempt by Pennyman to find a job for a man called Mr Payne who had been involved in the Heartbreak Hill scheme. Payne was unable to go back to ironstone mining due to an injury. It appears that Pennyman had asked whether he could be given a place at Swarland but for some reason this was impossible. He hoped that Nott may hear of a job that would be suitable for Payne. As background Pennyman tells Nott about Panye’s involvement at Heartbreak Hill:
“Some 4 or 5 years ago I started a Cooperative Land Scheme in the mining villages and this man was made secretary of the Boosbeck branch. I got a brother-in-law to do secretary for the whole affair – 3 branches – and when he fell sick (and also fell very lazy) Payne took on general secretary for the Club, which meant keeping the whole thing together and marketing the stuff to the value of £300 or £400 a year. He showed leadership initiative and trustworthiness. Now all members are back at work bar Payne & a few old men.”
This is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it is some of the only evidence we have for the extent of the involvement of the unemployed members in running the scheme. This letter gives the impression that they did have a certain amount of control over it. Whether they would have agreed with this characterisation is another matter, but the letter is some evidence for this. Much of the information we have about the scheme is from the writing of Rolf Gardiner who mainly worked with student volunteers on summer work camps at the site, rather than with the unemployed miners themselves, so this is an aspect that we know very little of.
Secondly, it is interesting to have something which gives a hint, albeit not much of one, about James Pennyman’s own characterisation of the scheme. Rolf Gardiner’s view of the scheme was from a very particular ideological perspective so it is not clear how far his writings can be taken as indicative of the views of the scheme’s other members. In addition to this some oral testimony reveals the views of other people involved, while anonymous publicity materials for the scheme give another characterisation. This is all quite problematic because we can be sure that the scheme was primarily driven by Maj and Mrs Pennyman. So what does the letter tell us about this? The phrase ‘Cooperative Land Scheme’ is quite telling. While allotment gardening is common among unemployment projects of the time cooperative schemes are rare (though not unheard of), that this was the phrase that Pennyman automatically used it may be that this unusual aspect of it was his idea. Similarly, the word Land (as opposed to allotment, market gardening etc.) may be significant. From some other letters and pamphlets in Pennyman’s papers he seems to have been interested in land reclamation, perhaps following a long tradition of landed aristocracy being advocates of agricultural improvement. These are no more than hints at what Pennyman might have seen the scheme as, but they do add to other hints that we get from his personal papers.
It is interesting that Pennyman says nothing of the carpentry or musical aspects. It’s possible that this is because Payne himself was not strongly involved in these, we can never know whether he was or not. However, it is also possible that Pennyman saw these elements as subsidiary to the market gardening. Certainly, of the Pennymans it was Ruth who was involved most clearly with Robin Hood so the music may have been her idea.
Finally, it gives an idea of why the scheme ended in the last line of the quote. The fact that nearly everyone had found work had made the scheme redundant. The scheme was always publicised as alleviating the effects of unemployment not solving unemployment itself, and so with increased employment there would be nothing for it to do. The letter is undated, but is a reply to a letter from Nott written on the 14th October 1937. The timing probably lets us guess at the reason for increased employment in Cleveland. At this time rearmament was in full swing. One result of this was an acute steel shortage, which was causing serious building delays at the Team Valley Trading Estate at about the same time. A sharp rise in the price of steel would probably have reopened the ironstone mines.
We do have to be careful about doing history in the way I have here. I’m trying to squeeze a lot of information out of a very small piece of text. Some of it isn’t much more than guesswork and more information could well show that some of it is wrong. However, the existence of the letter does tip a few possible interpretations of Heartbreak Hill in certain directions, and hopefully gives some new leads to follow.