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Pit Village Life in Scilly Banks and Moresby Parks, Cumberland during World War Two

by ritsonvaljos

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Joseph Parkinson Ritson, Thomas Dowson Ritson (Junior), Thomas Dowson Ritson (Senior), Ronald Ritson, Agnes Ritson, Mary Ritson, Tom Stephenson
Location of story: 
Scilly Banks, Moresby Parks, Whitehaven, St Bees, Kells, Moota POW Camp
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 January 2005

View from Rosehill, Moresby looking downhill towards the coast. It shows Harrington No 10 & No 11 Collieries at Lowca, Micklam Tar & Brickworks, Moresby Church in the mid-distance & Moresby Vicarage roof at the bottom left.


My father Joe Ritson was born in 1923 in the small village of Scilly Banks, Cumberland which comprised of approximately twenty dwellings, including farm houses, the Brethren Chapel of ‘Hope Hall’ and a public house. During World War Two Joe worked at Walkmill Colliery in the nearby village of Moresby Parks and was a member of Moresby Home Guard.

This written account has been written based on my father’s personal memories as told to his children, grandchildren and others. I have attempted to check the accuracy of events as far as possible. It has been written to record something of life in a mining village during World War Two.

The outbreak of war

When Britain declared war against Germany on 3 September 1939, Joe was already working at Walkmill Colliery, Moresby Parks and was in the Pit Band like his two elder brothers, Tom and Ronald. At that time, young ‘lads’ usually started work at fourteen on the ‘Pit Top‘, either sorting coal or handling the tubs used to bring the coal up the pit shaft. In Joe’s case, he started work by handling tubs.

By September 1939 he had progressed at the colliery by going down the pit shaft to help load the coal into the tubs and also to pull the empty tubs off the cage that went up and down the pit shaft. At the pit bottom, close to the shaft it was always cold. However, at Walkmill if you went from the pit shaft towards the coal workings - what was called ‘inbye’ - it was a bit warmer. Hence, at the coal faces the hewers - the men who dug the coal with picks - often wore just a pair of shorts, a light shirt, a helmet and headlamp.

On 4 September 1939, the day after war was declared Joe’s brother Ronald was called up by the army. Ronald was a Member of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and Military Hospital Reserve. Although Joe and his eldest brother Tom were also in the St John’s Ambulance, they stayed on the ‘Home Front’ throughout the war and continued working in the coalmines.

However, after the Dunkirk evacuation, and the fall of France in early summer of 1940, Anthony Eden made a radio announcement that volunteers were required to form a Local Defence Volunteer Force (LDV). This LDV eventually became the Home Guard. Moresby Home Guard mostly comprised men and boys from Scilly Banks, Moresby Parks and Low Moresby.

Home Front service

To give the Home Guard some protection as soldiers under the Geneva Convention in case they were captured by the enemy the Home Guard were nominally assigned to the Border Regiment. They were given the full Border Regiment cap badge to wear. However, as Home Guard soldiers they were not given a service number. After the war, this meant Home Guard soldiers were not allowed to be full members of the Royal British Legion.

Joe and Tom joined Moresby LDV that became Moresby Home Guard. Eventually, unless for example a person was exempted due to serious ill-health or a Conscientious Objection on religious grounds, it became obligatory to either serve in the Home Guard or similar service even if they worked in the mining industry. Some of the villagers and fellow mine workers were Conscientious Objectors (CO), including those in the Christian Brethren who worshipped at Hope Hall, Scilly Banks. Worshippers at Hope Hall used to spend virtually the whole of Sunday at the Chapel.

Agnes Ritson, the mother of Joe, Ronald and Tom, used to make lunches for the Brethren worshippers each Sunday. This would perhaps be soup, sandwiches and possibly some eggs from the hens Agnes used to keep. Although rationing was in force, many villagers had a smallholding so they used to eat a lot of fresh home-grown food. There were also a number of nearby farms where you could get other products like fresh milk.

Conscientious Objectors still played an important part in the wartime community, such as by becoming a ‘Fire Watchers’ at the mine. Additionally, at that time, religion perhaps had a stronger influence in daily life than in later years. Therefore it was often the devoutly religious people, such as the Christian Brethren, who made a particular effort to visit and comfort friends and neighbours who had suffered because of the war, including those who had lost loved ones.

Getting to work

Joe and Tom used to walk a about 1½ miles each way to work, usually via the footpath and fields that passed through Round Close Farm belonging to the Carruthers family. During the war, and for many years afterwards, there was no Mains electricity in Scilly Banks so it was pitch black walking to and from work. Joe said you had to have a good sense of direction to keep to the right path. Finding direction by the stars was a skill the Home Guard practised on manoeuvres so it was really useful.

As well as walking, another essential form of transport was the bicycle. Villagers who worked a little further away from Scilly Banks or Moresby Parks, such as other coalmines in nearby Whitehaven or Lowca, usually travelled by bicycle or sometimes by train. For example, Joe’s father, Tom Ritson (Senior), worked as a Journeyman Stonemason. He used to travel round the area to where the work was and regularly used the bicycle or train. Joe’s brother Tom (Junior) transferred to work at Harrington No 11 Colliery, Lowca, and used a bike for work. A bicycle also came in useful for Home Guard duties.

Village life

Joe’s brother Tom married his fiancée Mary (née Casson) during the war. Normally, in those times, the eldest male sibling of a family would ask the next oldest brother to be Best Man at his wedding. However, as Ronald was away in the army at this time and unable to get leave to attend the wedding, Joe stepped in as Best Man. After the wedding, Tom and Mary lived at Scilly Banks.

Wartime was a busy time for brother Tom. As well as getting married to Mary, starting a family, doing a physical job hewing coal with a pick and shovel, undertaking First Aid and Home Guard duties, Tom regularly attended Branch meetings of the Miners Union, spoke at open-air meetings for the ILP in Whitehaven and Workington with Cumberland Miners’ leader Tom Stephenson and read a wide range of books, pamphlets and tracks. Tom particularly liked studying geology, economics and politics. Another favourite topic were religious pamphlets and tracts he obtained from St Begh’s Church, Whitehaven, Moresby Church or Hope Hall. Books and pamphlets were shared round and discussed with family and friends during and after the war.

Tilting at lighthouses

As many of the members of Moresby Home Guard Platoon used to work at Walkmill Colliery or at other local mines, there were lots of exercises attacking or defending these mines, or sometimes the lighthouses at nearby Harrington, Workington, Whitehaven or St Bees. The officers in the Home Guard thought these were probably the most likely targets that would be attacked either by the Luftwaffe, German paratroopers or a marine attack by submarine. West Cumberland is in the North West of England beside the Irish Sea, during World War One a German submarine had shelled the ‘Harrington’ collieries at Lowca, which is approximately one mile to the north of Moresby Parish Church.

The Home Guard exercises to defend or attack the mines were not perhaps as ridiculous as might be considered in the more peaceful years to come. On the other hand, according to Joe, what actually happened during these exercises could well have been put straight into the television comedy series ‘Dad’s Army’. Not long after the Home Guard was formed there was a joint exercise for platoons based in and around Whitehaven. It involved the ‘recapture’ of St Bees lighthouse situated on North Head between St Bees and Whitehaven.

The briefing a few days before was that St Bees lighthouse, about three miles from Whitehaven, had been ‘taken and was being held’ by German paratroopers. The plan was that firstly the Home Guard would proceed meet in front of the Electric Lighting Station at Whitehaven harbour , secondly to proceed along the cliff path, past Haig and Ladysmith Pits and thirdly to check these were still in friendly hands. Finally, upon reaching the lighthouse, they would storm it, overpower the ‘Germans’ and recapture it. The lighthouse keeper was going to be a ‘German’. St Bees lighthouse overlooks the Irish Sea, much of the West Cumbrian coast, the Isle of Man and the Galloway Hills. It was actually a good choice of strategic location that may well have been a potential German target in the event of invasion.

Before the exercise, there had been torrential rain and the ground was saturated. The Home Guard soldiers were often weary before they began Home Guard training. Many of them worked long hours in physical jobs like mining. For an exercise, getting to a rendezvous was often by foot or bicycle. On this occasion, the Home Guard followed the path up the hill to Kells, checked the coalmines, crawled through ditches, over the pit ‘slag’ (waste) and dived in and out of nettles and brambles alongside the footpath. By the time they reached the lighthouse they were wet through, their uniforms and boots muddy and close to exhaustion. Nevertheless, orders being orders, the Home Guard surrounded the lighthouse and charged the door.

Just before reaching the door, the lighthouse keeper appeared. He gave a cheery wave and announced he ‘already surrendered’. One of their number, a young Whitehaven miner, had already been there an hour or so. The keeper invited the bedraggled Home Guard men in for a cup of tea, where they found one of the Whitehaven Home Guard contingent sitting in front of a warm fire, in a clean, dry uniform! What had happened was that he had finished his shift at the pit in Whitehaven, went back home to the Woodhouse housing estate approximately halfway to St Bees. Before going on exercise, he decided to have a ‘kip’ (sleep) and proceeded to ‘sleep in’!

Realising it was too late to make it to Whitehaven harbour, this gentleman decided to go quick march straight to the lighthouse by the road through Sandwith village. Upon arrival, he knocked on the lighthouse door and asked the keeper where the others were. As he was the first soldier to arrive, the keeper ‘surrendered’ and then invited his ‘captor’ in for tea and a ‘craic’ (chat). What was said at this point by those who had crawled through ditches along the cliff top can be left to the imagination.

Defending Walkmill Colliery against the Commandos

On another exercise, in the build up to D-Day, Moresby Home Guard had to ‘defend’ Walkmill Colliery against the Commandos. The main purpose of this was to give the Commandos some practice for what they would face in mainland Europe. Joe’s part in the exercise was to ‘hold until relieved’ one of the colliery outbuildings with a couple of others.

Five minutes after the exercise began, there was a bang outside. Then one of the umpires came inside and said the outbuilding had been destroyed and they were all dead. Joe asked if he was ‘dead’ could he go home? The umpire agreed to this, so Joe went back to Scilly Banks for a cup of tea and something to eat. Later on, he discovered the whole colliery had been overrun in about half an hour!

The Germans Arrive

Some Germans soldiers did however come to Scilly Banks and Moresby. They were Prisoners of War from Moota camp, Cockermouth. A truck brought them to the village each morning to work on the farms and came back in the evening to collect them. Some of the village farm lads, such as Colin Carruthers from Round Close Farm, had been called up into the forces. The German POWs worked as farm labourers filing in for the shortage of local manual labour.

Originally, a camp guard accompanied the POWs, or occasionally the local Home Guard was asked to stand in for guard duty. However, after a while the POWs just used to be dropped off on their own without any guards and they picked up by the prison camp truck at a given time.

Although German, the POWs were just young lads in their late teens and early twenties. They enjoyed being out and about in the fresh air doing farm work and they received a little extra food to supplement their military rations. None of them ever attempted to escape.

Sometimes, if the village lads were playing football at lunchtime or early evening the POWs and the Moota guards would join in the game. The guards used to take off their tunics and the ammunition out of their rifle and they had makeshift goalposts! So the only shots Moresby Home Guard fired against the Germans were with footballs not rifles.

Rifle practice did take place at Moresby, firing at targets or dummies made out of straw. Accuracy at throwing grenades was perfected by competitions trying to throw cricket balls into metal buckets at various distances. These skills proved useful after the war to win prizes for the children at the fairground!


Some months after D-Day, the Home Guard was disbanded as it had served its useful purpose. There were more important things that needed to be done on the Home Front. By this time, Joe had already progressed to working at the coal face. At this stage in the war, producing as much coal as possible to keep home fires burning was of critical importance. He handed back his rifle as soon as it was announced on the radio. He was allowed to keep the uniform. In a time of shortages and rationing Joe found the uniform could be used as his ‘pit claes’ (clothes) down the pit.

Joe spent all his working life in the coal mining industry, firstly at Walkmill Colliery and later at Haig Pit, Kells. He held several union posts, and was Secretary of the Cumberland Area of the colliery officials union NACODS for 11 years. He married in 1950 and passed away in 1994.

The Home Guard private who ‘captured’ St Bees Lighthouse was a former neighbour of ours when I was young. He first told me of this event when I was about ten years old. This former neighbour has since passed away, but I understand he was interviewed for an Oral History project about mining. If so, there may be a taped recording of this event in an archive somewhere.

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