Hartley Colliery disaster remembered 150 years on
- 15 January 2012
- From the section Tyne & Wear
One hundred and fifty years after one of the worst mining accidents in England, a monument in Northumberland bears testament to the victims.
Inscribed on the obelisk in Earsdon churchyard are the names of the 204 men and boys who died in the Hartley Colliery disaster on 16 January 1862.
The youngest was 10, the eldest 71, and the same surnames are repeated time and time again. One family, the Liddles, lost nine members.
Such was the impact of the disaster that it resulted in a change of law, spelling the end of one-shaft mines, and the beginning of more support for miners' families.
The disaster in 1862 began when a beam supporting the steam engine which was used to pump sea water from the Hester pit broke, crashing down and blocking the single mineshaft.
Five men, who were in the lift coming up at the end of a shift, were killed instantly. Three others survived.
In common with many 19th Century coalmines the Hester pit had only one shaft. With this blocked, 199 men - almost double the normal numbers, as the accident happened during a changeover - were left trapped underground.
A massive rescue operation began and workers from neighbouring mines came to help, but it proved more difficult than anticipated to reach the trapped men.
Progress was further delayed by the discovery of poisonous fumes, and it was six days before a passage could be cleared, by which time they were all dead.
Hardly anyone in the close-knit community was unaffected, with some families losing two generations of their menfolk.
Reports of the tragedy had appeared in the newspapers, attracting national attention.
Queen Victoria, herself in mourning after Prince Albert's recent death, sent a message of condolence.
She offered her "tenderest sympathy" to the widows and mothers of the dead, with her "own misery" making her feel the more for them.
Public attention also led to a successful campaign to make two shafts compulsory at mines, and despite opposition from some mine owners, an Act of Parliament was passed in August 1862.
Most of the dead were buried in the nearest cemetery, four miles away in Earsdon, with the Duke of Northumberland releasing additional land as the existing church grounds were too small.
The Reverend Andrew France, current vicar of St Alban's said: "At the time the devastation was felt all around this area, but I don't think there's still a scar here. It was such a long time ago.
"I will say something about the people round here, though, they all know about the Hartley pit disaster.
"They also realise that it had a positive impact. Although it was absolutely tragic that all those people died, out of that tragedy came mining legislation.
"It meant that never again would a mine be allowed to have a single shaft, there must be two ways in and two ways out.
"That really is its legacy, it meant that those people did not die in vain."
The modern-day community will be marking the disaster with a service at New Hartley Memorial Hall on Sunday at 16:00 GMT, and an event involving local schoolchildren in the village's memorial garden, on Monday.