Heartbreak Hill

A dull, overcast day. Took a trip out to Slapewath to look at some fields known as Heartbreak Hill. Turned out the fields were fairly nondescript and not very photogenic but they do have a bit of history which is worth recounting.

The fields, to the left of the row of ex-miners cottages of Margrove Park and below the woodland, was the site of an experimental farm in the early 1930s to provide vegetables and work for the unemployed of East Cleveland. A decline in the ironstone mining had meant very high levels of unemployment. Locally the official figure was 91%. Compare this to Jarrow, famous for its hunger marches which had only 77% unemployment.

The farm was set up in 1931 by a Major James Pennyman who owned Ormesby Hall in Middlesbrough and comprised 5½ acres. The land was uncultivated and acquired the name Heartbreak Hill because of the hard work that had to be put into developing it. Sixty miners pledged to put in three hours a day on the farm with the produce being shared amongst them.

The scheme attracted some attention, one visitor being HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent.

Alongside the farm a cultural side was being developed, encouraged by Pennyman’s friends who seem to have been a mix of both Nazi sympathisers and Trotskyists. Support for the local Cleveland Sword Dance folk group lead to musical tours by a German youth choir and puppet theatre. Eventually work camps were arranged with German students providing some of the labour for the farm. One young man attracted by the work camps was Michael Tippett, later to become Sir Michael Tippett and a world renown composer. However he did not take to the physical labour and instead started to organise choral concerts and operas. These was produced in the three week period of a work camp and performed in Boosbeck church hall. Buy all accounts these were a resounding success, His opera Robin Hood was written for these work camps.

By 1935 the farm was under full production; all the heart breaking cultivation work having been done. The last work camp took place that year with one of the participants being rumoured to be William Joyce otherwise known as Lord Haw Haw. The area was subject to attention by British Military Intelligence in the years after in case any secret Nazi cells had been left.

Furniture began to be manufactured in Boosbeck on similar cooperative principles. But by 1936 the mines were reopening so the labour needed to work the farm declined. A few miners did continue to farm but needed the help of horses and on a more commercial footing. By 1955 the lease on the land had expired.

Today the ruins of a few buildings remain. Hen houses and such. The name Heartbreak Hill is known to the locals but is understood to mean all the wooded hill behind.

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