Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
The Husker Pit disaster, 1838 - why 26 children died
"I saw a monument in Silkstone churchyard near Barnsley to the people who died in the Husker mining disaster. They were all children. Why was this? What happened?"
The 4th of July 1838 was a dreadful day in Silkstone's history. It was when 26 children between the ages of 7 and 17, working as 'hurriers' and 'trappers', were drowned after the dayhole through which they were attempting to escape from the Husker (or Huskar) Pit at Moorend was flooded. This happened during a summer thunderstorm when a clap of thunder was mistaken for an explosion. Forty-four children were working below ground and, ignoring instructions to stay where they were, they decided that, if there had been an explosion, the dayhole was a quick and safe way out.
A dayhole is an old mine seam which has been dug out and the hole left. No one had thought to shut down this potentially dangerous old working. Rather, as it zigzagged its way down three-quarters of a mile to the coalface, it was used as an alternative route. However, as the children neared the surface, a nearby ditch flooded and the water poured into the dayhole. Twenty-six children died, their mangled bodies thrown together. Later, the bodies were brought back into the village in carts.
Silkstone was devastated, and the accident shocked the country. A report was published in The Times, and the wider British public learned for the first time that women and children worked in the mines. There was a public outcry, led by politician and reformer Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Lord Shaftesbury. He called for a Royal Commission inquiry into the working conditions of children and women in Britain's mines. Eventually, after the report had become a bestseller, the law was changed.
On Saturday 27 November 2004, as part of the Woodland Trust's children's tree-planting campaign, Tree For All, a tree was planted in Nabs Wood for each of the 26 children who died. The trees were planted by local children whose ages and genders matched those of the victims. In time, the trees will form an avenue near the memorial by the entrance to Nabs Wood.
Alan Gallop, Children of the Dark: Life and Death Underground in Victoria's England (Sutton Publishing, 2003)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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