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A churchyard forever linked to the miners

By Ken Smith

Heworth's St Mary's Church has been a site of worship for around 1300 years. In more recent years, the site has became inextricably linked with mining and the disasters which fell upon the surrounding communities. Resident contributor and historian Ken Smith explores the more recent history of the churchyard, and why this is sacred ground for worshippers and miners alike.


St Mary's Churchyard at Heworth, Gateshead, holds two important connections to the history of the North-East coal miners.

Every autumn, former miners, their families and friends take part in the annual Thomas Hepburn memorial service at St Mary's Church.

Hepburn, who is buried in the churchyard, was the pioneer leader of mining trade unionism in the North-East in the early 19th century. A man of courage and peaceful intent, he led the strikes of 1831 and 1832. Hepburn was a great advocate of improved education for the miners and their children.

The first strike, in 1831, succeeded in obtaining a reduction in the hours worked by boys in the mines and the abolition of “Tommy Shops”. These were shops owned or controlled by the colliery owners and the miners were forced to buy provisions from them, the money being deducted from their wages. This put them at a serious financial disadvantage.

In 1832, the mine owners refused to employ members of Hepburn's union and this resulted in the strike of that year. The stoppage led to evictions of pitmen and their families from colliery-owned houses and ended in defeat for the union. Hepburn was reduced to extreme poverty. He was eventually forced to give up union activity in order to obtain employment – at Felling Colliery.

A Primitive Methodist lay preacher, Thomas Hepburn had worked as a miner at Urpeth, Fatfield, Jarrow and Hetton collieries. He died in Newcastle in 1864, aged 69.

During the annual memorial service pitmen's banners are on display inside the church. Afterwards they are carried outside to Hepburn's graveside where Gresford, the miners' anthem, is played by a band and wreaths are laid.

Wreaths at the graveside of Thomas Hepburn in St Mary's Churchyard, Heworth, Gateshead. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Gresford was composed by Hebburn pitman Robert Saint and commemorates the 266 men and boys who died in the Gresford Colliery disaster of 1934. It has since become an anthem for all miners who died as a result of their work in the pits.

Hepburn's gravestone carries the words: “Shorter hours and better education for miners.” A further inscription states that he led the 1832 strike with “great forbearance and ability.” The stone was erected by “the miners of Northumberland and Durham and other friends.”

A wreath is laid at the graveside of Thomas Hepburn at the annual memorial service. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Also buried in St Mary's Churchyard are 91 men and boys who died in the Felling Colliery disaster of 1812. The body of a 92ndvictim was never found. The tragedy was the result of three explosions. The initial blast was almost certainly caused by methane gas, known to the miners as firedamp. This initial blast may have ignited coal dust, causing the second and third blasts as fire swept through the workings.

Methane explosions were triggered by naked lights such as candles or sparks coming into contact with the gas. Poor ventilation of mines at this period was also an important factor in creating the conditions for firedamp to accumulate.

At Felling, the first signs of disaster witnessed on the surface were two blasts and a flame issuing from one of the shafts, the John Pit, with an immense roar. Shortly afterwards there was a third explosion from another shaft, the William Pit, also accompanied by a flame.

The youngest of those who died were two boys aged eight. They had been employed to operate ventilation doors in the pit. Three injured boys who were brought to the surface passed away within a few hours of the disaster. Most of the 28 putters who died were in their teens. Putters moved coal tubs in the mine. Recovery of the 91 bodies took nearly four months.

These tragic miners had been working in the newly opened Low Main Seam, the High Main having been exhausted the year before. Recovery of the 91 bodies took nearly four months and, as mentioned previously, one miner was never found.

The memorial to those who lost their lives in St Mary's Churchyard takes the form of a small obelisk. It stands close to the churchyard wall and across the road from Heworth Metro Station. The obelisk features brass plaques on its four sides listing the names of the dead.

The obelisk memorial in St Mary's Churchyard, Heworth, to 91 men and boys who died in the Felling pit disaster of 1812. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Felling Colliery was owned by the wealthy Brandling family of Gosforth Park. The Rev John Hodgson, of Heworth, conducted the funeral service for the 92 victims and afterwards wrote a detailed account of the accident and its aftermath.

Hodgson's account, published in 1813, led to the establishment of the Society for the Prevention of Accidents in Mines, based in Sunderland. Backed by a number of influential mine owners, including the Brandlings, the society asked scientist Sir Humphry Davy to look into the possibility of developing a miners' safety lamp.

Davy visited the North-East to carry out experiments in the collieries to devise such a lamp at about the same time that George Stephenson was experimenting at Killingworth Colliery to develop his safety lamp. Stephenson had his lamp in use at Killingworth a little before Davy.

Two safety lamps were also devised by Sunderland physician Dr William Reid Clanny. The first proved to be somewhat impractical, but his second design was a success.

Safety lamps, although superb gas detectors, were not perfect and gave only a dim light. Miners were therefore still tempted at times to use candles. Disasters as the result of explosions continued to occur. What was really needed was greatly improved ventilation to expel the gas from the mine. This eventually came with the introduction of powerful steam-driven fans (later driven by electricity).

Despite this, safety lamps, whether those invented by Stephenson, Davy or Clanny, were excellent at warning pitmen that methane gas was present. However, it was all too late for the tragic Felling miners.


Retired Newcastle journalist Ken Smith is co-author, with his wife Jean, of The Great Northern Miners. He has also written more than 20 other books on aspects of North-East history, often with co-authors, including shipbuilding and shipping as well as coal mining.


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