1862.....HARTLEY
By Brian Hall
Saturday 28 Jan 2012 08:12:00
Browse all Brian Hall articles
 

 

 

1862. A famous date in our regional history, celebrating a certain Races Trip to Blaydon on a summer's afternoon. A few months earlier, though, there was no joyful gathering of a community up the road at Hartley. That bleak January day saw an occurrence, oh so common in the Northumberland and Durham Land of King Coal, the Black Diamond. A small village was destroyed by a pit accident which took the lives of 204 men and boys, wiping out the core of a couple of generations underneath New Hartley colliery, or the Hester Pit as it was known in the area. The old pit had shut, but the new one would remain esconsed at the top of a tragic roll-call of major pit disasters across Britain.

 

 

 

To put it bluntly, the workers down below were simply buried alive under the village after the destruction of their own only exit, that single shaft. Once that giant beam snapped, hurling at least 20 tonnes of cast iron downwards, their tomb was effectively sealed. It is difficult to imagine how they suffered, but we can just about think about the impact this accident had upon all those up above in the village itself. Individual and collective grief. 

 

For days, hope did remain for those waiting up above. An agonising wait, which must have gradually eroded that very hope itself. Seconds, minutes, hours, and 6 days, all told.  Pitmen from nearby colliery villages had flocked over to assist the rescue operation in any way they could. An expert on shaft operation and aspects of mining engineering, Coulson, had raced to the village. He joined another key figure there, in the attempt to get the men out of that tomb below, dangerously full of gas. That other character was Tom Watson. Tom was one of the 3 survivors inside the rising shaft when it was blasted to smithereens, and had obviously see his other colleagues killed in that Escalator from Hell.

 

It is quite difficult to read through the list of names of those who perished that January day without feeling emotional, and particularly when you glance at some of the ages.  One of my own daughters is aged 12 - one of those killed was a boy one year younger than her. He came from a family called Liddle. The father was 46, and his other sons counted in, at 18 and 16 respectively - his brother, 41, perished, alongside other relatives. Just one example from a list which may just enable us to get some perspective of such devastation inside that small community.

 

Like so many accidents in the history of coalmining, the Hartley disaster could, and should, have been avoided., without huge cost to those who owned mines which spewed out such vast wealth for them, and British Empire PLC. It was not rocket science to suggest that only one pit shaft spelt potential calamity if something impacted upon that shaft . Clearly, if you live work in  a house full of omniprescent danger, you need 2 ways of getting out. This had been pointed out previously long before that dreadful January day. Not least, by miners themselves across the Great Northern Coalfield for greater safety standards, not least an absolute ban on single shaft mines. 

 

Warning voices of miners during that period, however, and far later, were not exactly listened to in the corridors of wealth and powers. The decades before Hartley had seen attempts to form unions, a collective voice for the Underground Soldiers creating wealth for the British Empire. Northumberland and Durham pitmen had assembled on the Town Moor back in 1831, Thomas Hepburn was actively pursuing the dream of a union forum in the region during that era, achieving some successes such as limiting the working hours underground of boys. Hepburn naturally ended up blacklisted, however, and even his attempts to survive on selling tea in villages held a risk for any mining family who bought it - job loss and eviction from their houses. The attempts to find a strong collective voice had long since collapsed, both sides of the Tyne, before 1862.. Horrific incidents continued to occur.  Only 2 years before Hartley, Seaham suffered 22 dead down the road in County Durham, and even closer to home, Burradon had seen 72 killed in that same year.

 

 

But the tragedy at Hartley  seemed to impact far more on those in power, perhaps because of the sheer numbers of those killed.

 

To claim anything good came out of that January would be a claim too far, in the context. Suffice to say, though, that if nothing else, it did lead to the end of the single shaft system.  Something positive coming out of the hideous cost paid that day might be a better word to use. Ten years later saw the introduction of the Coal Mines Act -  inside the legislation lay one significant clause. No person should be inside a mine unless there were 2 shafts - to enable ingress and egress. Ian Lavery, current MP for Wansbeck, former President of the National Union of Mineworkers, and previously an active miners leader in Northumberland,  pointed out to this writer that it would be impossible to calculate just how many lives were actually saved as a result of that introduction. At least that came out of the biggest tragedy in UK coalfield history - albeit, at such a horrific price.

 

 

 

In the years and decades afterwards, the voice for better safety condtions grew, whether via the emergence of the Union itself, or through MPs, such as Thomas Burt, the first ever miner MP to be elected as a Liberal representing part of the Northumberland area - there was no Labour Party at that point. Naturally, any glance at our coalfield history will confirm that the call for health and saftey, decent pay, decency itself, for those risking their lives to produce the Black Diamond , was so often ignored. Nearly 100 years after Hartley, Easington would see 57 men killed in an explosion - in between, countless pits suffered deaths, including Usworth, Stanley, and others. Alongside, the serious injuries and of course, illnesses related to life with the Black Gold and its dust continued. 

 

Some people may wonder why we commemorate the Thomas Hepburn Memorial Service, have a Northumberland Miners Picnic,  and stage the Durham Miners Gala - as a Durham lad , I can just about get away with saying that its counterpart up the road is of course the smaller cousin! On a serious note, we simply retain respect for all those communities whose lives were dominated by King Coal, and I , for one, find it encouraging that our schools are often involved in such studies of our common past.

 

In essence, we are remembering an inherent, essential part of our culture, history - through all those services, through wreaths laid,   inspiring banners, and brass bands. We are recalling the Cost of Coal, as well as the Culture of our past Communities, whether in terms of their pursuits above those pits, or their perilous existence below them.

 

 

 Pay tribute to all those Underground Soldiers and their families. What price they paid to churn out the Black Diamond - and in this publication,  let us have our own Remembrance Service for those way back on that January day at Hartley. 1862.

 

 

BRIAN HALL




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