Updated: Jul 27
There is a pit disaster that continues to linger in South East Northumberland's collective memory, despite it being over 160 years ago. One of the North East's pre-eminent historians and regular contributor Ken Smith explores the tragic happenings of that night in New Hartley, why the trauma of the disaster sent shockwaves nationally, and how we still remember the victims.
Photos have also been provided by esteemed photographer Dr Tom Yellowley.
A tall memorial obelisk stands in St Alban's Churchyard, Earsdon, North Tyneside. It commemorates the 204 men and boys who died in the New Hartley Colliery disaster of 1862. The tragedy was the worst of the many to occur in the pits of the Northumberland and Durham Coalfield.
The obelisk is inscribed with the names of the 204 who lost their lives. Some of the boys listed were aged only 10. However, the cause of this terrible accident was unique.
Explosions of methane gas, known to the pitmen as firedamp, were the commonest reason for such large-scale mining disasters. Methane proved by one of the greatest dangers encountered by the miners.
It should also be noted that sometimes methane, ignited initially by naked lights or sparks, could trigger a second explosion of coal dust and thus increase the loss of life and destruction. In addition, coal dust on its own could be explosive in some circumstances, without the presence of methane, when exposed to a cause of ignition such as the heat of a spark or flame.
If not killed by the explosions, many pitmen and boys died as the result of afterdamp following the blasts. Afterdamp contained nitrogen, carbon dioxide and, most deadly of all, carbon monoxide.
Explosions were the cause of the second and third worst disasters in the coalfield – at West Stanley Colliery in 1909 (168 dead) and Seaham Colliery in 1880 (164).
Other mine explosions which resulted in great loss of life included Wallsend in 1835 (102 dead), Haswell in 1844 (95), Felling in 1812 (92), Burradon in 1860 (76) and Trimdon Grange in 1882 (74). There were numerous other such tragedies in the North-East mines and this list is by no means exhaustive.
The last great disaster in the coalfield occurred as the result of a methane explosion at Easington Colliery in 1951. The initial blast triggered the ignition of coal dust which swept a long distance through part of the workings. The disaster caused the deaths of 81 miners and two rescue workers.
Flooding was another danger faced by the pitmen and boys and this was the cause of the disasters at Heaton Main Colliery in 1815 (75 dead) and Montagu View Colliery in 1925 (38). In both cases the water burst in on unsuspecting miners from old, disused workings which had become flooded.
The New Hartley tragedy was very different. It resulted from part of the iron beam of a pumping engine breaking off and falling down the pit's single shaft, carrying with it a mass of debris and thus blocking the only means of escape for the miners working below.
The disaster happened on the morning of January 16, 1862, when part of the pumping engine beam, which projected out over the mouth of the Hester Pit, broke off and crashed down the single shaft. As it fell, this heavy, cast iron beam destroyed the wooden bratticing (partition) which divided the upcast and downcast ventilation airways and tore away the shaft's wooden lining. This resulted in a mass of tangled wreckage blocking the shaft, which was the only means of escape for the men and boys below.
The beam had broken away at the most unfortunate time possible. Most of the fore-shift or day miners had only shortly before descended the pit and most of the back-shift or night men had not yet left the mine. Eight men were ascending in the cage when the beam plunged down. Five of them were killed, one of them slipping from the loop of a rope lowered in an attempt to rescue him. Three men were eventually hauled to safety. They were to be the only survivors.
A tremendous effort was launched by highly experienced pit sinkers and also by miners from the surrounding districts and further afield to rescue the trapped men and boys by clearing the shaft of the wreckage.
A sloping drift tunnel linked to an underground shaft, known as a staple, led from the Low Main Seam, where the men and boys had been working, to the Yard Seam via a ladder. The Yard Seam was linked to the main shaft. However, after climbing up the staple and reaching the seam the miners found their exit to the main shaft blocked by the mass of wreckage.
After nearly a week of work clearing the blocked shaft three men managed to reach the Yard Seam, where the bodies of 199 miners were found. It seemed they had succumbed to carbon monoxide gas. Another likely factor was a low level of oxygen and the presence of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, known as chokedamp. Both conditions would have been engendered by the ventilation furnace in the mine continuing to burn and smoulder. Added to the five killed in the shaft, the total death toll was 204.
Writer T. Wemyss Reid penned a day-by-day account of the efforts to reach the men and boys. He reported that the man who led the first team into the seam had more than once seen “the father clasping in his arms the son”. He had seen “again and again, a group of children clustered around their father”. It is clear that fathers died along with their sons and brothers along with their brothers.
One older miner perished with three of his sons and a grandson.
It is hard to imagine the extent and depth of the grief which hit the remaining villagers of New Hartley. It is likely that every family in the settlement suffered at least one bereavement.
Many thousands turned out to mourn the victims. The Duke of Northumberland gave land next to St Alban's Churchyard at Earsdon for the burials of the tragic miners. Most were interred in three rows on this land and a few in the main churchyard. A number of others were interred at Cowpen, Seghill and Cramlington.
The disaster shocked the nation. The fact that New Hartley Colliery had only one shaft had proved a fatal drawback. This terrible accident led Parliament to pass a law requiring every mine to have at least two shafts or other means of exit so that escape was still possible if one shaft became blocked.
A relief fund was started to help the widows and children and generous donations poured in from many sources, including a contribution from Queen Victoria.
The disaster also led to the setting up of the Northumberland and Durham Miners' Permanent Relief Fund, which provided small weekly payments to the widows and children of men killed in pit accidents on condition that the men concerned had contributed to the fund from their wages. A number of other benefits were also developed as part of this self-help scheme, including payments for miners disabled by injury.
As well as the obelisk memorial in St Alban's Churchyard, two memorial stained glass windows have been installed above a balcony area in the church. The windows are by artist Cate Watkinson, who specialises in glass and public art. One window features images representing the single shaft, the coal seam and points of light symbolising the miners who lost their lives. The other, more brightly coloured window suggests the hope engendered by the passing of safety legislation following the disaster.
The New Hartley pit disaster stained glass memorial windows. They are by artist Cate Watkinson. Touch image of windows to bring up smaller versions within single frame. Photos: Tom Yellowley
In addition, a commemorative garden has been laid out at the site of the Hester Pit, not far from the railway level crossing on the eastern edge of New Hartley. Commemorative paving stones in the garden form a pathway leading to the capped shaft.
The paving stones feature artwork by Russ Coleman and moving words telling of the disaster by writer Rob Walton, working in co-operation with New Hartley community groups and local schools. The paving stones also feature the names of the 204 men and boys who lost their lives. Members of the team involved in producing the pathway also included Leigh Cameron, Phill Blood, Kirk Teasdale and Blyth Valley Arts.
A memorial banner was created to mark the 150th anniversary of the disaster. The banner, created in duplicate, was designed by artist Alison Walton-Robson and has been on display in the village.
All these tributes in remembrance of the tragic New Hartley miners are a reminder of the great dangers which the pitmen and boys of the North-East coalfield faced to win the coal from the deep darkness.
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.