Miners remembered - recalling the New Hartley mining disaster

PUBLISHED: 00:16 16 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:54 20 February 2013

Miners remembered - recalling the New Hartley mining disaster

Miners remembered - recalling the New Hartley mining disaster

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the New Hartley mining disaster which remains one of the worst in British history. Eddie Graham reports

This will be an emotional month for the people of New Hartley near Seaton Delaval and for all others associated with mining in Britain. January 16th is the 150th anniversary of one of the worst mining disasters this country has seen which claimed the lives of 204 men and boys from this small village community.

At 10.30 that morning, as shifts changed over, the 40 ton beam of a pumping engine snapped. The beam crashed down the mines only shaft, crushing everything in its way as it plunged down 600 feet.

Incredibly three men in a cage returning to the surface survived when the beam broke, but the five they were travelling with were killed instantly. And 199 more were trapped underground.

As news of the disaster spread, men from neighbouring mines joined the rescue effort and for two days jowling signals (men below ground making as much noise as possible) could be heard by the rescuers indicating that at least some of those trapped below were still alive. And even when the mine fell silent, efforts continued as it was believed the only danger to the trapped miners was the lack of food and rest.

Writing at the time for the Newcastle Journal and Courant, Thomas Wemyss Reid (later Sir Thomas) reported hourly from the village as the full extent of the disaster unfolded to a nation which held its collective breath.

But the flicker of hope was extinguished on Tuesday January 21st when a large piece of timber was pulled away from the blocked shaft and gas came away in immense volumes causing rescue efforts to be suspended.

The following day tools were found, dropped where the trapped miners had succumbed to the fumes as they attempted to escape. Shortly afterwards the first two of many bodies were found. The grisly job of winching the bodies to the surface one by one took more than 17 hours, each one identified by the pit tally boy, Mark Bell, who was just 12-years-old.

The repercussions of the disaster were felt far away the village received a letter of condolence from Queen Victoria, who was still in mourning her Prince Albert, offering her tenderest sympathy to the widows and mothers. The Hartley disaster also led to a change in the law to ensure no such tragedy could happen again and ordering that all mines in future have two shafts.

But although the scale of the disaster was immense, the intimate personal stories are no less shocking. Mary Oliver lost her husband and six of her seven children. The oldest person killed in the accident was 72-year-old William Gledson whose wife Frances was also left to mourn her three sons. Ten-year-old neighbours Robert Cousins and Alexander North were the youngest to perish. Almost every family is the village was affected.

On Friday January 24th the Glasgow Herald reported that the men and boys died as a result of the noxious gases and that the poor fellows appear, in the hour of death, to have gathered together according to their kindred; for we are informed that families are lying in groups, children in the arms of their fathers and brothers with brothers.

The miners funerals were held St Albans in Earsdon village on January 26th and drew huge crowds, including many from other pits, but just 34 men were left at Hartley Colliery to pay their respects. Reports said the first carts of the funeral cortege began to arrive at Earsdon church as some carriages were just leaving the village of New Hartley a distance of four miles. A memorial stone in Earsdon churchyard bears the names of all of those who died.

We will remember them

The mine underviewer at Hartley Colliery at the time of the disaster was Joseph Humble, the great, great, great-grandfather of television presenter Kate Humble. She learned of the tragedy, and how the inquest cleared him of blame, when she appeared on Who Do You Think You Are?

Kate has declined her invitation to attend the memorial services being held in New Hartley this month, but the Duchesss of Northumberland is expected to attend, along with the Anglican and Catholic bishops and descendants of those who were involved in the disaster.

The villages memorial hall will host a concert by Beeswing on January 14th, with a memorial service in the hall at 4pm the following day. At 11am on January 16th, 150 years to the minute after the dust began settle on the scene, a service will be held at the pit head in the memorial gardens.

Norman Jackson, a council member at the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers based in Newcastle, will give a talk on the Hartley disaster from 5.30pm on January 26th. The talk will be staged at the institutes Westgate Road headquarters and entry is free. For more information about the institute, visit their website at www.mininginstitute.org.uk.

The print version of this article appeared in the January 2012 issue of North East Life

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