The Pitman Poet

CHORUS : So here’s to the memory of Tommy Armstrong
He was the pitman poet, righting all life’s wrongs
In the words of his poems which are now folk songs
Here’s to the memory of Tommy Armstrong

He was the pitman poet, recording life and times
In the late eighteen hundreds in his verses and his rhymes
When the main source of earnings was working down the mines
And sometimes the wages there were paid back in fines

He wrote about evictions that went hand in hand
With strikes for better wages as the miners took their stand
Against the rich coal owners, the masters of the land
Who had pollisses and candymen to jump at their command

At Tanfield fellow workers’ names were subject to his wit
At Stanley in detail he described the town’s “markit”
He chronicled disasters, there were many down the pit
Like the Trimdon Grange explosion, many lives were claimed by it

Have a listen to this recording from the 80s – violin is my sister Pamela – I’m not sure if the flute is myself or my cousin Helen;

I decided this would be a timely nod to ‘The Pitman Poet’ Tommy Armstrong for National Poetry Day in the UK.  Tommy was from County Durham and documented life in the late 1800s & early 1900s in the North.  Back in the 80s our family and some of our ‘Cramlington Folk Workshop’ friends made up the audience for a BBC documentary on the life and songs of Tommy which featured Bob Fox, Chuck Flemming and Benny Graham.  I’ll have to chat to Dad about whether he feels he was influenced by Tommy’s work. It strikes me that he must have been based on some of Dad’s other songs from around that time.  Obviously the documentary was inspiration for Dad writing this particular song.  I music say I was certainly influenced by Bob Fox’s rendition of The Trimdon Grange Explosion as it’s a song that has been part of my own repertoire for many years now.  You can learn more about Tommy Armstrong at

The last line of the second verse includes an expression from Tommy’s ‘Sooth Medomsley Strike’ – ‘polisses and candymen’.  Candymen were those employed by the coal mine owners to evict the families of miners who went on strike.  I’d love to know where the term ‘candymen’ came from if anyone can enlighten me. I’ve always assumed ‘pollises’ to be police but I may be wrong.  

I have such vivid memories of the BBC documentary and and was delighted to find it has been digitised!  If you have a spare 30 minutes I’d highly recommend watching it.  The songs are fantastic.  Wor Nanny’s A Maisor at around the 25 minute mark was my all time favourite – so funny.  You can even catch a glimpse of a very young Julia at 2:20 (looking a lot like my daughter Erin!) having a good sing along (and 27).  For my sister and I, Chuck, Bob & Benny were a key part of our early introduction to folk music.  Great times!  Oh and I hear Bob & Benny have teamed up with Billy Mitchell and Jez Lowe and are touring as The Pitmen Poets in January 2016 if anyone is keen to hear more music from the mines

The Songs of Tommy Armstrong from SOCSI TV on Vimeo.

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