In 1844, the Hartley New Pit or Hester Pit was sunk. Working conditions were good and output was high but water and flooding problems necessitated the installation of a powerful pumping engine at the pit head. No one could have imagined that the small community of New Hartley was destined to become the scene of one of the most devastating and appalling catastrophes recorded in the history of coal mining.
Exactly 150 years ago, on the morning of 16th January 1862, the men and boys of Hester Pit were preparing for ‘change-over time’ and the first relay had already descended into the shaft to start work. Eight men were in an ascending cage when the 42-ton cast iron beam of the giant pumping engine snapped in half and plummeted downwards. The beam smashed completely through the ascending steel cage, killing five of the occupants instantly, and leaving another three seriously injured. The mangled remains of the cage became wedged in the shaft, completely blocking it, and with no other access there was immediate concern for the safety of the imprisoned miners, some 200 men and boys.
The scale of the catastrophe was immense, and rescuers flocked to the pit, risking their own lives in an effort to assist. Fears grew, as the supply of fresh air had been cut off and the flood risk was increasing. It was six days before rescuers were able to descend into the workings, to find that all the trapped miners were dead. The shaft was in a dangerous state, and a build up of poisonous gases and water meant that repair and ventilation work had to be undertaken before any bodies could be safely recovered. It was not until noon on Saturday 25th January that the grim task of bringing bodies to the surface began. The constant succession of bodies included children who had died clasped in the arms of their fathers. The last body was recovered the next day, making a total of 199 men and boys who had perished in the bowels of the earth; adding to this the five who died in the cage brought the deaths to 204. A community had almost been wiped out.
Sunday 26th January was the great funeral day. From dawn, an estimated crowd of 60,000 built up in Hartley in readiness. The main burial was to take place at Earsdon, but separate burials took place at Cowpen, Seghill and Cramlington. As the procession of death moved off, the first hearse arrived at Earsdon Church before the last left Hartley Village, some four miles away. Fifty gravediggers worked non-stop, day and night, labouring even whilst burials took place, and the excavations covered an area of one acre of ground. This was a day never to be forgotten. A granite obelisk was later erected in Earsdon churchyard, with the names and ages of all 204 men and boys engraved thereon, including sixteen young boys aged 12 or under, and six aged between 12 and 14.
Coal mining in the area eventually recovered in the years that followed, but the terrible scars of this appalling tragedy remained until New Hartley Colliery finally closed in 1959. The broken beam of the pumping engine remains somewhere deep below ground to this day.
by Charlie Steel © 2012
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, local historian Charlie Steel has lived almost all of his life in Monkseaton. His books “Monkseaton and Hillheads” and “Inns and Taverns of North Shields” are published by Tempus and are available in all good book shops.
All Charlie’s articles which are featured in Roundabout Monkseaton can also be found on his website www.monkseaton.info. Charlie also writes articles for Roundabout Tynemouth.
If you have any old pictures or photographs of Monkseaton that you would like to share then please e-mail Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org.