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Act 1 Scene 1 - Sarah taunting the soldiers

Act 2 Scene 1 - Fletcher trying to persuade Sarah

Act 3 Scene 1 - Geordie and Daniel

Background to the Opera - 'Men of Blackmoor'

The world premiere of 'The Men of Blackmoor' took place at the German National Theatre, Weimar, on November 18th, 1956. It had later German productions in Jena Opera House (1957), Leipzig Opera House (1959) and Zwickau Opera House (1960). In Britain, there were two amateur productions, the Oxford University Opera Club (1960) and the Bristol University Operatic Society (1974) and a BBC Third programme broadcast in 1969.

In 1956, Nancy Bush wrote the following historical note to explain the background to the opera:

"The story of the opera 'Men of Blackmoor' is based upon the history of the miners of Northumberland and Durham between the years 1800 and 1835.

The north-country miner is still called a 'pitman', and always independent and proud of his calling. In the 18th century they were described as 'a rude, bold, savage set of beings, apparently cut off from their fellow men in their interest and feelings'. They swore, drank and gambled, kept dogs and fighting cocks, performed feats of strength and endurance. On holidays, they dressed in gaily-coloured clothes, and were in general a spirited and independent community. Their well-known 'turbulence' acted as a protection against attempts to lower wages and worsen conditions.

Methodism, under the leadership of John Wesley, had a profound effect upon the mining community during the latter half of the 18th century and 19th century. Its first influence was sobering, for it encouraged the pitmen to give up their drinking and gambling, and to change their bright holiday clothes for sober Sunday black. But on the other hand, this neglected community, hitherto ignored by the Church of England, now joined the new chapels and by the management of these, learnt something of self-government. Once illiterate, the pitmen now learned to read the Bible, and after it, books, newspapers and political tracts. Young miners learnt to speak as local preachers, and later used their eloquence to urge the men to join the Union or to go on strike.

Wages do not always seem to have been the first subject of disputes between masters and men. The average wage of a hewer in 1825 was 14 shillings a week, of which an average of 2 shillings was paid in fines, most often paid for the inclusion of stone or poor coal in a basket of coal. After the strike of 1831 in the Northumberland district, both sides seem to have agreed on 15 shillings a week as a fair minimum wage, fines being subject to adjustment.

At the time the opera is set, there was increasing unrest among the pitmen of this great coalmining district, one of the main causes of agreement being the growing stringency of the 'Miners' Bond', or written agreement, by which it was usual for the men to bind themselves to work for the owners of the various collieries for a period of approximately one year. As described in the first scene of the opera, three outstanding causes of complaint were, the exorbitant fines payable by the miners if stone or poor coal was included in their baskets of coal, the habit of the owners shutting the mines for three days if work was slack, and not paying the men during this time, and the long hours worked by boys in the mine.

The chief strikes in this period were in 1810, 1831 and 1832, and as a result conditions in these three respects were improved; in particular, the owners agreed to a 12-hour shift for the boys. The first large Union of miners was formed in 1830 under the leadership of Thomas Hepburn, and was active in the organisation of the last two strikes, but was dissolved in 1832.

Fearing that wage concessions won by these early strikes would endanger profits, the owners round about 1831 began to engage lead-miners from places as far distant as Cornwall and Wales, who were willing to work for a lower wage than that of the coal miners proper. Soldiers called in by the owners to keep the peace in the coalfields often had to undertake this unwelcome task. Naturally, feeling against the blacklegs ran high; any local pitman who consented to work with them was the object of especial hatred.

The opera 'Men of Blackmoor' takes place just before the establishment of the first pitmen's union of 1830. Though still a rough and turbulent community, the pitmen, under the sober influence of Methodism, have lost something of the savagery of the 18th century, and are capable of serious and disciplined action, particularly in the opening scenes, before their temper is roused by the introduction of the blacklegs.

Daniel has come partially under the educative influence of Methodism, in that he can read and write, and partly on account of this ability has been chosen as leader. He is, however, out of sympathy with the religious teaching of Methodism, being determined that the pitmen shall improve their lot by their own concerted efforts. Jenny is, at the opening of the opera, fully in sympathy with the teaching of Methodism, and there is at first a serious division of belief between her and Daniel. The course of events during the strike, however, finally reconciles her to his point of view, and in the end she takes her stand by his side".


Daniel, a young miner Baritone
Geordie, his friend Tenor
Thomas, an older miner Bass
Sarah, Thomas's daughter Soprano
Fletcher, Viewer of Blackmoor Pit Bass-Baritone
Jenny, Fletcher's daughter Mezzo-Soprano
Leadminer Tenor
Young leadminer Bass
Soldier Bass
Four Soldiers, who play cards Tenor
Chorus of miners and their womenfolk, leadminers and soldiers


The story of the opera is set in a small mining village in the district of Tyne and Wear, in northern England, about 1820.

Act 1

Scene 1
Blackmoor Village. The pitmen have already been on strike for six weeks. Soldiers are boarding up a cottage, from which Thomas and his daughter, Sarah, have just been evicted. Tired of the strike and its interference with her own life, Sarah tries to persuade her lover, Geordie, to go back to work. He refuses and joins the strikers, who hear from their leader, Daniel, that the owners will make no concessions.

Scene 2
The same, early next day. Jenny, daughter of the colliery manager, Fletcher, has returned unexpectedly from Newcastle on hearing news of the distress in Blackmoor. Daniel tells her more of the strike and not only their differences of opinion, but their affection for each other becomes clear. Fletcher, angry at his daughter's return, tells Daniel that leadminers from the west of England are being brought in to work the pit.

Act 2

Scene 1
A room in Fletcher's house, near the pithead. The manager reveals his difficulties - the leadminers are inefficient, the owners dissatisfied; he plans to persuade a Blackmoor pitman to work as overman. He blames Jennie for helping the strikers. Sarah now comes in, soon followed by Geordie, both having been summoned to an interview, unknown to each other. Sarah and Fletcher combine their persuasion and Geordie overcome by his longing for Sarah, agrees to join the leadminers in Blackmoor pit the following night. The strikers are heard approaching; Sarah and Geordie escape unseen, Fletcher boldly confronts the men and refuses to dismiss the blacklegs.

Scene 2
On the fells. The strikers hold a meeting and demand an attack on the pithead. Daniel and Thomas persuade them that one man acting in secret may have more effect. Lots are drawn, it fist being agreed that the man chosen shall give no sign, to avoid betrayal. Left alone, Daniel reveals that he has drawn the marked lot. Jenny comes to him, begging him to prevent an open riot. He refuses to give away the strikers' plan but asks for her confidence and leaves her to join the pitmen.

Act 3

Scene 1
Near the pithead, the following night. Soldiers are playing cards round a campfire as they wait to escort the leadminers to the first shift. The latter are uneasy, having been warned of danger by the strikers, but they are finally marched off to work by the soldiers. Geordie now enters, in a state of tormented indecision. As he is about to follow the leadminers, he is stopped by Daniel, who tries to prevent him from acting as a blackleg. When all argument fails, Daniel strikes him unconscious, snatches up his pick and rushes off towards the mine.

Scene 2
The pithead, later the same night. A soldier on guard marches along the skyline. Sarah comes to reassure herself that Geordie had joined the shift and questions a young leadminer as he works alone at the engine. Daniel comes in and is mistaken by the soldier for the long-awaited Blackmoor overman. Sarah accuses him of injuring her lover and ruining her chances of happiness. Daniel smashes the pick into the engine valves and brings the wheel over the shaft to a standstill. Sarah rings the alarm bell and soldiers seize Daniel. Pitmen and women rush in, followed by Fletcher and Jenny, who takes her place at Daniel's side. Geordie comes in dazed and the pitmen, at first hostile, take him back into their ranks. The injured leadminers clamber from the pit and make off, while in the struggle between strikers and soldiers, Daniel is rescued. The opera ends with a chorus of defiance.

Opinions and Commentary on 'Men of Blackmoor'

Of 'Men of Blackmoor', the reviewer writes:

Geordie and Daniel

"Mainly by means of rhymed couplets, lyrics and blank verse that is never less than vivid and at times on the very brink of poetry, the Librettist, Nancy Bush, has suggested the grim smouldering spirit of the times. The action moves swiftly, with little if any digression, and the story is unfolded with sincerity and a compelling sense of urgency…It is not easy to be lyrical about the slow destruction of the human spirit, unrewarding toil and choke-damp, and despair induced by callous oppression.

And yet, the Composer has achieved lyricism. It is he who has supplied the idiomatic turn of phrase and, by means of an individual form of expression in the dialogue, brings the characters to life. Further, by the subtle adaptation of folk-music, drawn from the rich store of the north country and the use of a wide range of dynamics, with rhythmic and harmonic freedom, he has succeeded in creating the appropriate atmosphere which the text alone could never convey…The work, which is rich in ensemble, calls for full orchestra with triple wind and trumpets."

Financial Times, 6 December 1960

Andrew Porter writes of 'Men of Blackmoor': "This (opera) was composed to a commission from the Weimar Opera, and first produced there in 1956. Various other East German opera houses have taken it up. It is easy to see why, for it is a well-made piece…Alan Bush is a very professional composer. He has made extensive use of Northumbrian folk music, but integrated it into a continuous texture. The harmony has a good solid quality which sometimes recalls Hindemith…The best passages are probably the choruses, with their simple vigour and not so simple rhythmic subtleties, which keep them from squareness. Occasionally Mr. Bush strikes through to a lyrical idea that catches at the emotions, for example Jenny's entry in the final scene; it looks straightforward in the score, but comes off wonderfully in performance…It is not a dull opera, and it is easy to see that it could be a stirring one with a dynamic German production, powerful choruses and robust soloists."

New Statesman, 18 December 1960

David Drew writes: "The chief virtue of 'Men of Blackmoor', and the reason why it particularly deserves a performance at this historical point, is its unfailing honesty. The work is respectful of the craft of composition: it is never cheap, and at its best achieves a genuine dignity."

© Rachel O'Higgins, Alan Bush Music Trust, 2001