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18 June 2014
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The Hartley Mining Disaster

Life in a 19th Century mining village

Wilkinson, a rescuer during the disaster
© Mining Institute
When Britain’s appetite for coal increased during the Industrial Revolution, villages such as New Hartley sprung up around the pits that were sunk to mine the coal-rich seams that lay beneath. People living in this area of Northumberland had been mining coal long before the Hester Pit was sunk in 1845, but previous to this time, only the poor quality coal that lay close to the surface had been taken. The sinking of the Hester Pit marked the beginning of large-scale excavations on this spot, and the village of New Hartley grew up around it.

Coal meant New Hartley was a relatively comfortable place to live in by providing employment and fuel. By 1862, the Hester pit employed the majority of the village’s men, but unlike pits in Scotland and Wales and factories across the country, Northumberland’s mines did not employ women or children. According to E. Raper in her study ‘Social and Working Conditions in the village of New Hartley 1845 – 1900’, this resulted in a higher standard of home life for the miners’ families:

“the miner in New Hartley would return home after a hard day’s work to a warm, clean, comfortable home and usually a substantial hot meal”

After the mine had been sunk, houses were constructed for the pit’s employees. At the time of the accident, the village of New Hartley had over a hundred miners’ cottages, plus a school, the Hartley Hastings Arms, a Methodist chapel and slaughter house.

However, this relatively comfortable domestic life could not compensate for the perilous nature of mine working in the 19th Century, borne out by the various superstitions and customs adhered to by mining communities. For instance it was considered a bad omen for a miner to forget to take something to work. If on his way to work, he did realise he had forgotten something, he would either goes back for it and stay at home, or continue to work without it. In a similar fashion, the wives and mothers of miners would not leave the family home while their husband or son was down the mine, in fear of bringing about some accident.

However archaic these superstitions might appear, the appalling safety record of 19th Century mines helps explain their existence. Mining accidents were common; the technology was crude and unsophisticated. A cursory examination of the pits surrounding New Hartley reveals a shocking safety record. In March 1860, an explosion at Burradon Colliery claimed the lives of 72 workers. In December of the same year another explosion killed 22 miners at Hetton Colliery in Durham. Miners and their families lived with the threat of death and incapacitation hanging over them everyday.

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