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The coalminer's typewriter

The coalminer's typewriter

This Olympia typewriter belonged to one of the North East’s most important literary figures.  Sid Chaplin (1916-1986) is known for his portrayal of the industrial heritage and culture of the North East in novels such as The Leaping Lad (1946) and The Thin Seam (1950). Sid was influenced by his own experience of growing up in a Shildon, County Durham and of working in the coal mining industry.

Sid Chaplin was a coalminer’s son and began working at the mines from the age of sixteen.  In 1948, Sid was offered a post as writer for Coal, the National Coal Board’s publication, which resulted in his family moving to Essex. Nine years later, they returned to Newcastle where he began a new job as Public Relations Officer for the National Coal Board. Sid lived in Newcastle upon Tyne for the rest of his life, until his death in 1986.

His writing career began in earnest during the Second World War with the publication of several short stories and poems in contemporary literary magazines. Sid was involved with a number of creative projects throughout his life including as a broadcaster and as a contributor to national and local newspaper journalism, and writing for television dramas When the Boat Comes InFunny Man, and The Paper Lads in the 1970s. He also maintained an active interest and participation in many cultural groups in the North East, including Northern Arts, the People’s Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, and the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, and was awarded an OBE in 1977 for services to the arts.

Sid Chaplin influenced a younger generation of Northern writers who emerged in the 1950s, including Alan Sillitoe, David Storey and Stan Barstow. His novel The Thin Seam (1950) was developed into a play in 1968 by Jarrow-born playwright Alan Plater with music by Alex Glasgow.

Sid’s typewriter represents an important artefact of North East literary heritage. Many of the papers in the Chaplin (Sid) Archive, including correspondence and creative works, were written on this typewriter. The typewriter can also be seen in photographs of Sid during the 1970s. Olympia typewriters, in both their portable and office forms, were popular across Europe in the twentieth century and were produced by a German company until the closure of the factory in 1990.

Reference: SC/TYPE/1, Sid Chaplin's Olympia Typewriter (C.1970s), Chaplin (Sid) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB186. 

Potential research ideas

You could begin your research by looking at cultural depictions of the North East and asking whether these depictions came to fix national perceptions of the region.  Sid Chaplin’s work is often celebrated for its depiction of the industrialised North East and of mining communities in County Durham.  How was the coal mining industry and the industrial north popularised/romanticised in arts and culture?  Was there a backlash against this popular identity as a purely industrial hub?

You could investigate the function of these cultural depictions in the context of the larger political situation. Sid began his career in mining and continued to work for the National Coal board and mining magazines for much of his life however, by the 1950s and 60s some of the mines in County Durham had already closed and without mining some of the smaller villages were not economically sustainable.

Sid was an inspiration to younger authors during the 1950s but what was it about Sid Chaplin’s North East that inspired these young authors? How did their experiences differ from Sid’s and did this impact on their portrayal of the region?

Sid’s story The Thin Seam inspired an adaptation by Alan Plater called Close the Coalhouse Door, the play was originally played by Live Theatre in 1968 and was revived in 1994 and again in 2011. To what extent do earlier cultural depictions of coalmining and working-class life differ from later portrayals?  It may be interesting to consider cultural depictions of the North East following the increasing industrial decline of the region, particularly after the miner’s strikes of 1984-85.

Selected background reading

For further background information into regional identity and the North East:

Green, A. & Pollard, A.J., 2007. Regional identities in North-East England, 1300-2000. Woodbridge: Rochester, NY: Boydell Press.

Langton, John., 1984. The Industrial Revolution and the Regional Geography of EnglandTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 9, no. 2. (Accessed 20 Apr. 2020).

For research specifically into culture and the miner’s strikes:

Shaw, K., 2012. Mining the meaning cultural representations of the 1984-5 UK miners' strike, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Pub.

For a critical reading of Sid Chaplin’s novels:

Pickering, M. & Robins, K., 1989. Between Determinism and Disruption: The Working-Class Novels of Sid Chaplin.  College English, Vol. 51, No. 4. National Council of Teachers of English. Available at: (Accessed 26 May 2020)

Also of interest:

Armstrong, K., 2009. Common words and the wandering star : a biographical study of culture and social change in the life and work of writer Jack Common (1903-1968), Cygnet Way, Rainton Bridge: University of Sunderland Press.

What can I find here in Special Collections?

For other cultural depictions it might be useful to consider other forms of art, such as illustration:

Thomas Harrison Hair (1808-1875) was a local artist who came to be particularly known for his depictions of coal mining communities in Northumberland and Durham. His etchings, in Views of the Collieries … of Northumberland and Durham (1844) often recorded pit-head buildings and the wider coalfield setting.

Our literary collections may be of interest if your research looks at the legacy of North East literature or seek to draw comparisons:

Michael Chaplin, the local-born County Durham writer is the son of Sid Chaplin. Michael has worked as a journalist, in television production and as a freelance writer producing work for the theatre, television, radio and print. His archive consists of draft manuscripts, publicity material and correspondence as well as personal material and items relating to the estate of his father, Sid Chaplin.

Jack Common is another famed North East Writer, born in Jesmond.  Though Common moved to London he is known for his working-class literature, particularly his first novel Kiddar’s Luck.  The Jack Common Archive contains his notes, diaries and correspondence.

Close the Coalhouse Door, the adaptation of Sid Chaplin’s The Thin Seam was commissioned by Northern Stage and staged by Live Theatre some relating to the play and Sid Chaplin in both Northern Stage Archive and Live Theatre Archive

  • Photographs from Live Theatre’s Close the Coalhouse Door, 1994 [photograph]. LV/2/1/3/9, Live Theatre Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.
  • Production flyer for Close the Coalhouse Door at the Royalty Theatre, Sunderland, c. 1970. LV/5/2/2, Live Theatre Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.
  • Photocopied script for Close the Coalhouse Door, 2011 [typescript]. NS/2/2/22 Northern Stage, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Similarly the Archive of Barry MacSweeney may be of interest, as a contrast to Sid Chaplin and for further research into the legacy and direction of North East cultural depictions, particularly post-industrial decline. MacSweeney was part of the poetry Revival movement and was involved in Newcastle’s thriving poetry and arts scene in the 1960s which centred around events at Morden Tower.

If your research focuses on the representation of mining and industrial communities, you might also be interested in:

The Clarke (Edwin) Local Collection contains books and pamphlets relating to the history and description of the North of England.  It includes numerous titles on coalmining in particular and some that relate to cultural depictions of the region, for example:

The Bell (Maurice) Collection was built-up by Maurice Bell (1871-1944) and features publications relating to a wide range of industries, including coal:

The Joicey Coal Mining Archive contains material relating to the James Joicey mining company and its successors, operating in west Durham 1843-1929. This archive contains leases, maps, plans.

What can I find elsewhere?

The Mass Observation Archive holds all the material generated by Mass Observation between 1937 and 1949, with a few later additions from the 1950s and 1960s.  The archive is an excellent resource for the study of Social History in the modern era.

Tyne and Wear Archives provide guides on their holdings of archives relating to coalmining in the region.

For depictions of the North East The Yorkshire Film Archive ran a programme based on footage from the region.

The Mining Institute offers a range of records that may be of interest.  As well as tracts and other official records they hold mining poems, songs and illustrations which would be of interest when considering cultural representations of the industry.