Tag Archives: County Durham

Rocking the region’s history

DAVID SIMPSON investigates, in a hopefully not-too-technical way, how geology has influenced our region’s history and heritage in profound and spectacular ways.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle. sits upon a rocky outcrop of the Great Whin Sill © David Simpson 2018

GEOLOGY can sometimes seem a bit of a dry subject but it’s very much a part of our story and in the North East has had a profound impact, shaping our history, heritage and economic development.

The influence upon the landscape and history of North East England is apparent in so many ways. Many of the major themes of our history: industrial; border history; maritime links and several of the region’s most visually spectacular heritage sites have all been shaped by our region’s geological legacy.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall on the Great Whin Sill. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Coal

Coal of course is the most obvious geological factor to have shaped our history but how many of us have heard the term ‘Carboniferous Westphalian Rocks’? Very few, I would guess, yet these rocks, more commonly known by geologists in our region as the ‘coal measures’ stretch from the Druridge Bay area of Northumberland to just north of Hartlepool.

From the exploitation of the natural resource of coal within these rocks; wealth, growth and cultural identities were created across our region. Throughout the North East, coal accounted for the emergence of countless colliery villages and paid for the construction of mansions and stately homes for wealthy coal owners. Ports such as Newcastle, Blyth, Shields, Seaham and Sunderland and even ports outside the coalfield like Hartlepool ultimately owed their growth and prosperity to the geological processes that created coal.

The coal deposits in those Westphalian measures spurred on the birth of the railways in our region which had such a profound impact on the emergence of our modern world, especially when coupled with the iron stone deposits of Consett and the Cleveland Hills which helped the region develop into a major centre for steelmaking and engineering.

Coal in our region was of course created from the sediments formed by dead plant matter in the Carboniferous period around 310 million years ago. Those deposits came about when much of what was now England formed a vast marine delta within which plant matter originating in the Caledonian land mass to the north was deposited in our region over vast swathes of time.

The overlaying of new rocks and strata occurred over unimaginable epochs of time under enormous physical pressures and intense heat that compressed the decayed plant matter into coal over millions of years. Later, in some areas subsequent erosion exposed the coal near the surface and here it was first exploited by man. This became particularly important in the vicinity of the Tyne from medieval times where the river became an important means of transporting coal for shipment by sea, gradually creating a significant maritime trade.

North East geology. A simplified map
North East geology. A simplified map © David Simpson 2020

Magnesian Limestone Country

The collieries, of which there were once hundreds, have now gone but in recent memory we may think of the colliery landscape of Billy Elliot, a film that was set in east Durham.  This locality, which geologically encompasses Sunderland might be considered as once being the predominant area for coal mining in the North East. In fact this area, where the coal measures stretch far out to sea, was one of the last areas of our region to be exploited for its coal.

Until the 1820s there was some doubt that coal even existed in eastern Durham as this is a landscape with a surface dominated by a very deep layer of Permian rock called Magnesian Limestone (sometimes broadly known as ‘Dolomite’) which overlays the coal to considerable depth.

The Magnesian Limestone was deposited during the hot, Sahara-like climate of the Permian age some 250 million years ago when the area lay on the margins of the shallow ‘Zechstein Sea’ that covered much of what is now Europe. When sea levels began to rise, the desert sands were inundated and overlain with calcium magnesium carbonates which included fossilized coral reefs that together formed the Magnesian Limestone over eons of time. Interestingly, quarrying at Sherburn Hill near Durham has exposed the sands of the original desert that was overlain by the magnesian limestone.

 A view of Newcastle and the distant Cheviot Hills from Sherburn Hill in County Durham
Telephoto view looking towards Newcastle and the distant Cheviot Hills viewed from Sherburn Hill in County Durham © David Simpson 2020

There is a limited outcrop of Magnesian Limestone rock just north of the Tyne, forming the cliffs at Tynemouth but in the main this creamy coloured rock is a south of the Tyne phenomenon, stretching down the coast from South Shields all the way to Hartlepool. It stretches a little way inland too. Take a glance at a satellite map and you will see vast quarries south and east of Durham City which look at first glance like enormous sandpits in the proximity of West Cornforth, Kelloe, Quarrington Hill and Sherburn Hill. On closer inspection they resemble broad moonscapes where trucks and diggers look like tiny toys.

Blast Beach, Seaham
Blast Beach on the Durham coast at Seaham Photo © David Simpson 2018

There are signs of this rock being quarried at Marsden near South Shields too and at Fulwell near Sunderland, though the second of these is now greened over and forms a nature reserve. In fact the grasslands associated with this particular rock often attract unusual and sometimes unique fauna and flora, most notably in the form of butterflies. It is one of the prime reasons that East Durham is designated a ‘heritage coast’.

The coastal cliffs along the shore from Tyne to Tees are formed by the rolling magnesian limestone hills of what is called the East Durham Escarpment meeting the sea, forming in world terms, a unique coastal region.

Marsden Rock near South Shields, the coastal cliffs of Blast Beach near Seaham and the Hartlepool headland on which the former medieval port of Old Hartlepool is situated are just some of the coastal features formed by this rock, as are the cliffs along the gorge of the River Wear in Sunderland.

Marsden Rock near South Shields
Marsden Rock near South Shields, formed from Magnesian limestone. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Magnesian limestone has been extensively quarried since medieval times, even giving its name to an early medieval shire called Querningdonshire (Quarringtonshire) near Durham where it was seemingly used in the making of quern stones for grinding corn. In more recent ages it has found use as a flux in the chemical industry of Teesside and is of course most familiarly used in the making of roads beneath the tarmac.

Inland you can clearly see the steeply inclined boundary of the magnesian limestone escarpment where it meets the vale of Durham, most notably forming Houghton Cut near Houghton-le-Spring where a quarry was used in the 19th century as an overspill graveyard during the cholera epidemic of the early nineteenth century.

Near Durham City the villages of Sherburn and Sherburn Hill lie respectively at the foot and top of the magnesian limestone escarpment and at nearby Quarrington Hill ‘the heugh’ near Bowburn on the edge of the escarpment is quite apparent. The top of this hill offered a great vantage point and in 1747 was occupied as a camp site for several weeks by the Duke of Cumberland and his army following his brutal Culloden campaign in Scotland. A century earlier in 1644, a Scottish army under the Earl of Leven had camped here for seven days before heading to Marston Moor.

Quarrington Hill
‘The Heugh’ at Quarrington Hill pictured from Sherburn Hill  on the edge of Durham’s magnesian limestone escarpment. © David Simpson 2020

Before the 1820s most geologists were convinced that there was no coal beneath the deep layer of Magnesian Limestone in eastern Durham though many speculators were keen to take the risk of expensive trial borings in the hope of finding rich rewards. They were unsuccessful until coal was finally discovered at great depth at Hetton in 1822. This marked the beginning of a new coal mining age – the deep mining era – in County Durham which exposed rich and extensive seams of coal and even saw George Stephenson develop his very first railway, the Hetton Railway, at Hetton Colliery.

Hetton Colliery
An early 19th century illustration of Hetton Colliery

The mines in this eastern area, that opened over time, would include Easington, Westoe and Monkwearmouth (where the Sunderland football stadium stands today) and were amongst the region’s biggest coal mines in terms of the number of miners they employed.

A glance at the map shows, however, that on the surface at least, the collieries in this area were quite sparsely distributed, reflecting the costs involved in deep mining compared to more westerly areas where there is denser distribution of collieries. Of course deep down the coal seams were extensively worked in east Durham, even extending out to sea.

Iron and lead

In the Pennines to the far west lead mining was of course another big industrial exploit resulting from the abundance of this particular ore. In the nineteenth century Britain was the leading producer of lead and the North Pennines of Durham and Northumberland were the most important lead producing area in the country. Lead mining has left behind important industrial relics such as Killhope Wheel and Rookhope Chimney in Weardale or the Stublick chimney in South Tynedale.

Killhope Wheel lead mining museum, Weardale © David Simpson 2020

In the Cleveland Hills around Eston, iron ore deposits played an enormous role in the success and growth of Teesside. Middlesbrough, a completely ‘new town’ in the 1830s initially began as a coal port but morphed into the heartland of an iron and steel making region. Items made from Teesside’s iron and steel soon found their way across the world.  A nineteenth century writer remarked:

“The iron of Eston has diffused itself all over the world. It furnishes the railways of the world; it runs by Neapolitan and papal dungeons; it startles the bandit in his haunt in Cicilia; it crosses over the plains of Africa; it stretches over the plains of India. It has crept out of the Cleveland Hills where it has slept since Roman days, and now like a strong and invincible serpent, coils itself around the world.” Sir H.G Reid.

In addition to this legacy Middlesbrough and Darlington would of course become famous for the construction of bridges found across the world from Newcastle to Sydney Harbour.

Tyne Bridge
The Tyne Bridge built by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough. The firm also constructed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Geology has contributed in a massive way to our region’s visual and natural heritage too. It has close links to the themes of our earlier history, whether it be Christian sites of international importance or defensive strongholds associated with the Border wars.

Consider the beautiful sandstone bluff around which the River Wear twists and turns to form the ‘dun-holm’ (Durham) or ‘hill island’ on which Durham Cathedral and castle stand in great splendour. They utilise a splendid naturally defended site. In Sir Walter Scott’s words it beautifully forms the “half church of God half castle ‘gainst the Scot”.

Durham City sits upon a sandstone bluff surrounded by the River Wear. Photo: David Simpson

The Great Whin Sill

Indeed the region’s most spectacularly dramatic defensive sites owe their beauty to geology and this is no more apparent than in the role played by the Great Whin Sill. This volcanic intrusion was formed by a layer of molten rock that expanded due to crustal tensions caused by tectonic plate movements some 295 million years ago. The molten rock or magma penetrated between layers of softer neighbouring rock. The volcanic rock is exposed in a distinct ribbon-like band across the region as a sloping sill of solid grey-coloured igneous stone.

The igneous stone of the whin sill is some of the toughest stone you will find in the region. It is also called whinstone or ‘Dolerite’ so must not be confused with the very different permeable ‘Dolomite’ that we have already mentioned.

Exclusive to our region, the Great Whin Sill first appears in the south in Teesdale where it forms impressive rocky escarpments such as Cronkley Scar and Falcon Clints but most notably forms waterfalls such as Cauldron Snout, Low Force and of course High Force. Here the River Tees empties its flowing waters with an impressive roar over the distinct whinstone, cutting its way through the layers of softer rocks beneath the dolerite to create a gorge downstream over vast periods of time.

High Force
High Force waterfall, Teesdale and the rocks of the Great Whin Sill © David Simpson 2018

The Great Whin Sill can be traced in a long band north into Weardale (a notable section near Stanhope is called the ‘Little Whin Sill’) and can be traced west of Cross Fell. Further north, where it runs parallel to the Tyne Gap just north of the Tyne, we find the Great Whin Sill put to its most impressive defensive use courtesy of a certain Roman Emperor called Hadrian.

Here the steeply impenetrable slopes of the Great Whin Sill coupled with its proximity to the Tyne gap and the relatively short natural east to west route from the North Sea to Irish Sea provide an obvious site for a line of defence and demarcation. The Great Roman wall that tops the whin sill crags marked the natural northern frontier of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.

Hadrian's Wall Whin Sill
The crags of the Great Whin Sill were utilised as part of Hadrian’s Walls defences Photo © 2018 David Simpson

The Great Whin Sill doesn’t end there of course. From the spectacular central sections of Hadrian’s Wall the sill crops up again and again across Northumberland to the north east, contributing to the craggy country in the wilds of ‘the Wannies’ near Sweethope Loughs before finally emerging on the coast near Craster, forming impressive rocky settings for the wonderful medieval edifices of Dunstanburgh Castle and Bamburgh Castle.

Dunstanburgh Castle from Embleton
Dunstanburgh Castle on the Great Whin Sill. Pictured from Embleton © David Simpson 2020

Like Hadrian’s Wall these great castles utilise the natural defensive features of the Great Whin Sill with stupendous splendour. Even out to sea, the Great Whin Sill has one last statement to make, forming the rocky weather-beaten outposts of the numerous stubborn little pieces of land called the Farne Islands, while to the north, Lindisfarne Castle nestles grandly on Beblowe crag, a rock of similar igneous foundation.

Outcrop of the Great Whin Sill near Craster
Outcrop of the Great Whin Sill near Craster © David Simpson 2020

Of course geology and the landscape features it has formed have not only shaped the region’s heritage but have defined its boundaries too. For nearly a thousand years the great igneous volcanic massif of the Cheviot Hills has formed the northern boundary of our region, separating it from the nation of Scotland, while the carboniferous limestone hills of the Pennines form the boundaries of our region to the west and south west.

The Cheviots viewed from Ford.
The Cheviots viewed from Ford in north Northumberland. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Across the Tees to the south east, the Jurassic Cleveland Hills and North York Moors have to some extent isolated the Teesside region from the remainder of Yorkshire, forming yet another natural border for the North East.

It is only in the central south of our region where the Vale of the Tees merges to the south of Darlington with the Vales of Mowbray and York that we have a permanently accessible, if sometimes distant link to the heartlands of England. So geology has defined our region with its permanent legacy and set apart our landscape and heritage. It is not just a part of our story but forms the very letters, margins and structure of our region’s narrative.

Collieries of North East England. Poster Print map (A2 only)

 

The River Tees: Viking frontier

The Viking history of the River Tees is explored in a series of YouTube videos by David Simpson.

Low Force waterfall
Low Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In an English region where borders and frontiers have shaped history more than any other, the River Tees is one part of the North East that’s often overlooked. Yet this valley has one of the most distinct and varied histories within the region and was as much a frontier as the Tyne, Hadrian’s Wall, the Cheviot Hills or County Durham’s ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’.

The story of the North East role as a frontier is covered in our new You Tube series: The Five Frontiers with four short videos covering each of five frontiers from the Tees to the Tweed.

Surprisingly, Scotland’s borders once stretched to the Tees and in the first of four videos covering the Tees we look at this legacy and the influence of the Baliol and Bruce families, both of whom once dominated the Tees valley and both of whom would produce Scottish kings. We discover how the Tees became a short-lived border for Scotland and became a focus for Scottish raids that sometimes bypassed much of the region to focus on the Tees.

The Tees was not just a Scottish frontier, however. In fact the earlier ‘frontier’ history of the valley is crucial to understanding the role of the North East’s distinct history and role as a borderland. The revelation of the river’s role in this respect is revealed through an exploration of the Viking period when the Tees became a distinct cultural frontier that separated off the rest of the region and helped form the North East’s distinct identity of which the Tees itself formed a part.

Viking settlement in the Tees valley divided the Kingdom of Northumbria into two parts with much of the Viking settlement falling upon Yorkshire and stretching only a little to the north of the Tees itself.

In the first of the four videos covering the Tees we explore the period when the Tees became the Scotland border before heading into the earlier period of Viking settlement that would partly inspire the nineteenth century Scottish poet, Sir Walter Scott in his Teesdale-themed work ‘Rokeby’. Scott partly draws on Viking place-names and themes including the Norse inspired river and stream-names: Balder, Thorsgill Beck and of course the famous ‘force’ waterfalls with their Viking terminology. Scott’s poem is set in a much later period – the Civil War – but Scott seems to have understood the earlier role of the Tees as a frontier drawing on its distinct Viking place-name nomenclature.

In our second video covering the Tees we see how two of the most famous Viking Kings to reign within England had associations with the Tees. Eric Bloodaxe met his end here in this valley as a result of a political intrigue associated with the old fault line within the Kingdom of Northumbria that lay along the River Tees.

The river separated the political sphere of influence of the ‘Kings’ of Bamburgh from the Viking kings of York and the downfall of Bloodaxe really marked the beginning end of the end for Northumbria itself. The other great and powerful Viking king associated with the valley is Cnut, the Danish king of all England who held land within the valley which he bestowed upon the Community of St Cuthbert at Durham.

The third of the videos covering the Viking heritage of the Tees looks at the Viking Wapentake of Sadberge – the Viking territory that lay just north of north of the river as well as exploring Viking place-names along the entire course of the valley.

South of the river we explore the strong Viking associations in the Cleveland area, focused upon the prominent hill of Roseberry Topping, once called ‘Odin’s Berge’ a former centre of Viking pagan worship. In this video we also look at the legacy of the unique and fascinating Viking hogback sculptures that are unique to Britain and most significantly focused on the Tees valley and neighbouring Northallerton ‘Allertonshire’ area of North Yorkshire.

In the fourth video again exploring the history of the Viking valley of the Tees we find the story of the Sockburn Worm, a probable mythological legacy associated with the Vikings and set within a loop of the river that has significant Viking links as well as connections to the Christian heritage of Northumbria. Finally, downstream from Sockburn within another loop of the Tees we visit the town of Yarm where the remarkable discovery of Britain’s first Viking helmet find was made.

At some point the Tees-themed videos will be followed by more videos covering the other frontiers of the region, namely Northumberland’s border country; the River Tyne and Hadrian’s Wall Country; County Durham’s Land of the Prince Bishops and of course the region’s magnificent frontier coast.

Remembering the miners who gave their lives

DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tragic loss of life in the coal mining  history of North East England where literally thousands of men lost their lives simply doing their job.

West Stanley memorial
Memorial to the West Stanley Colliery explosion of 1909.

“Bye mam”, shouted fourteen year-old John Richard Heard, as he set off for work, as he’d done so many times before.

“Bye son”, his mother replied and then, strangely, moments later, another farewell came as he briefly returned, for reasons that we will never know:

“Bye mam”.

“You’ve already said goodbye, son” came the reply, the mother not knowing that this goodbye, would be his last.

The young lad lived in Perkinsville, a little pit village near Pelton just west of Chester-le-Street. He worked at nearby Urpeth Busty Pit, a short walk from his home. How long he worked there, we don’t know. What sort of lad he was, we don’t know.

All we know is that the inquest notes for his death on that day, January 27, 1898, include the boy’s name, the name of the colliery owners, the name of the pit and the cause of death.

The mine owners were Charles Perkins and Partners, the successors to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mosely Perkins, from whom ‘Perkins’ Ville’ was named. The Perkins family also owned the nearby iron works at Birtley where there is a prominent statue to E.M. Perkins’ memory. The pit was the Urpeth Busty Colliery, ‘busty’ being the name of the coal seam that this particular colliery worked. As for the cause of death, a short matter of fact explanation reads as follows:

“His work consisted in ‘helping-up’ the putter with his empty tubs, after which he should have returned to the siding. On this occasion, however, he did not return to his proper place, and being caught by the full tub, which the putter was bringing out, was crushed between it and the prop.”

The words “he should have” are typical of the comments found in the summaries of mine accidents at that time. Responsibility is firmly placed on the individual worker, even when the deceased worker might be as young as eleven, ten, nine or eight-years-old but this lad was fourteen, so clearly he must be considered an adult. To the modern mind the thought occurs that this is only a boy and he should not be working here at all, but these were very different times when the risk of death in the name of work and progress, even for children, was a simple and unfortunate fact of life.

Five months following John Richard’s death, his mother, Alice Heard, would also pass away. She was 41. Her death was perhaps hastened by her heart-breaking loss. Alice would share the grave with her beloved son in Pelton churchyard. She would, however, live to see the marriage of her daughter from whom my mother’s family descend. Alice was my great-great grandmother and the story of the lad – my grandma’s uncle – who came back to say that one last goodbye, has passed down to us.

Felling Colliery
Old postcard showing Felling Colliery the scene of a disaster in 1812

In our day and age no one expects to lose their life simply doing a job, simply earning a living for their family. Less do we expect to find children employed in such dangerous work. However, this was once the widely accepted reality in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham and in other coalfields across the land. A century earlier, back in the early 1800s most people had worked as ‘agricultural labourers’. That was no doubt a relentless job and it certainly received very poor pay. It was a life of virtual servility, little better, perhaps, than that of the medieval peasants of old. For such people, mining was a very attractive proposition.

Businessmen, speculators, risk takers, entrepreneurs and men of money like Edward Mosely Perkins brought new opportunities for the impoverished. They opened mines and built new villages from scratch, offering simple home comforts and wages which though modest by the standards of today, would have been more than tempting for farm hands used to working the land.

Alice’s mother and father, were called Apperley and originated in rural Herefordshire where Apperleys had resided for centuries, presumably working the land. Mining brought new opportunities that drew people of modest means from far and wide to the North East seeking work in the coal mines. Another branch of my family came over from Ireland, also to work in the Durham mines. Mining was a comparatively lucrative trade, but of course it was also, as we have seen, potentially deadly.

Woodhorn Colliery museum
Woodhorn Colliery on the northern edge of Ashington is now a fabulous museum that celebrates and recreates the lives of miners. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The massive scale of this danger and the huge loss of life really only hit home to me some years ago when I co-authored a book about the history of Sunderland aimed at young people in that city. The book was filled with quirky facts and fun features but also the occasional poignant event.

This book was fun to do but one thing that really sticks in my mind is discovering that within the modern bounds of what is now the City of Sunderland we can find the names of around 2,700 men and boys who lost their lives working in the mines of that very area. So, that’s 2,700 just within the area covered by the present City of Sunderland. That is to say just one small part of the North East coalfield.

Now you might think there must have been some fairly major colliery disasters in the Sunderland area given that figure, but in truth that part of the region seems to have been reasonably fortunate in terms of mining deaths. The worst disaster in the area now covered by present day Sunderland was of a relatively modest scale. It was also a relatively early disaster, being an explosion at Newbottle Colliery in 1815 that claimed 57 lives.

Haswell disaster sculpture
Detail from sculpture commemorating the Haswell Colliery disaster of 1844. Photo David Simpson © 2018

However, by the time that colliery closed in 1956 it had claimed the lives of  148 men and boys over a period of time, all of whom died simply doing their job. Across the region most deaths in the mines were, sadly, an almost day to day experience. There were no major disasters at Ryhope Colliery, for example, which operated for 109 years (1857- 1966) yet it still claimed the lives of 291 men and boys during its working life. Further north, at Monkwearmouth, 297 lives were taken during that mine’s history. That is of course the colliery that once stood on the site now occupied by Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.

The intention here is not to be morbid or make a political point of some kind. It’s just important to highlight this rather sad element of our region’s history that should not be forgotten. Most towns and villages around our nation have war memorials recalling the names of those who gave their lives while bravely fighting for their country. Many were young men, of whom we should be rightly proud. In the coalfield of Northumberland and Durham many such war memorials stand in almost every town and village but those towns and villages could equally display monuments to the men and perhaps more significantly, the boys – the children – who gave their lives simply earning a living to support their families.

This is no less a tragedy than the sad losses of war and these are individuals of whom we should be no less proud, especially when we consider the part coal played in powering us towards the modern world and all the comforts we know today.

Mining tragedies weren’t just a nineteenth century phenomenon, however. In May 1951, for example, 83 men lost their lives in one single event in the colliery at Easington in County Durham. And if you find the human cost too unbearable to imagine you might consider that it was not just human lives that could be taken. In September 1880 a single disaster at Seaham Colliery claimed 164 men and boys but also killed 181 pit ponies working below ground. Mining could be a hard and cruel industry in so many respects.

Mine disaster memorial Stanley
West Stanley memorial. Photo © David Simpson 2018

If the plight of the region’s miners and their families, who faced such daily dangers is remembered at all, it is in the memorials to the major disasters. One good example is at Stanley in County Durham which recalls the disaster at the West Stanley Burns Pit in  February 1909 where 168 lives were lost. The memorial was unveiled in 1995 by the then Newcastle United football manager Kevin Keegan whose grandfather, a miner at this pit, had survived the event and had helped with the rescue effort.

There are many other memorials across the North East, some new, some old. At Haswell between Durham and Easington for example there stands alongside the 1830s remains of a colliery engine house a sculpture installed in 1996 by Michael Disley depicting the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone. It commemorates a disaster at the Haswell mine in 1844 which claimed 95 lives.

Haswell Colliery Engine House
Remains of Haswell Colliery engine house and commemorative sculpture. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One of the most important memorials and one that is contemporary with the event rather than a modern remembrance can be found in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Here a memorial to a disaster of special importance commemorates that which took place at Felling Colliery in 1812 in which 92 miners lost their lives. Their names are engraved around four sides of the monument. This disaster was of particular significance because it was the first pit tragedy to really come to the attention of the public conscience and was an event that really spurred on a determination to improve mine safety. It was the Felling disaster that ultimately brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.

Felling Memorial Heworth
Plaque and one side of 1812 Felling memorial at Heworth churchyard : Photo © David Simpson

Coincidentally the churchyard is also the burial place of Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), the Pelton-born, union leader who founded The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland. Hepburn, who had worked in mines since the age of eight, fought hard to improve the rights and conditions of his fellow miners. He was a dignified and intelligent man, determined to fight the miners’ cause by peaceful means. He often worked against great adversity and faced much resistance from those who controlled the trade but he was an important part of the story in improving the often brutal conditions in which miners had to live and work.

Hester Pit memorial Earsdon
Memorial to Hartley Colliery disaster Earsdon churchyard. Photo © David Simpson 2018

For me the most moving memorial to a pit tragedy within our region is at the scene of the biggest North East mining tragedy of them all and one that I have only recently visited for the first time. It concerns the Hester Pit at New Hartley near Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. Here a disaster struck on the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862 after a massive beam engine used for pumping water from the mine gave way, crashing into and destroying the mine shaft below. Deep below the number of miners was especially high as it was time for a shift change with about half the men due to end their shift and the others about to commence work.

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.

Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday. Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.

The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber.

A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.

Two hundred and four men and boys lost their lives in what was the worst mining disaster ever recorded in the North East of England. Sadly, a third of those who died were under nineteen and included five boys aged ten or eleven years old and more than twenty were from twelve to fourteen years of age.

The dead were buried at Earsdon near Whitley Bay some four miles to the south and a continuous convoy of coffins and mourners is said to have run to there from New Hartley. A monument can still be seen in Earsdon churchyard commemorating the burials but the really moving place for me is the memorial garden at New Hartley itself that is built around the superstructure on the site of the shaft where the terrible events took place. The garden was opened in 1976 and in 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was added recalling the names of those who lost their lives

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The one positive note that came from this tragedy was a change in the law, in 1865, which made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, though some colliery owners opposed this additional expense. If there had been a second shaft at New Hartley, the miners would have been saved.

Disaster memorials like that at West Hartley are unusual and recollect only the major events. They do not record the names of the thousands of incidental deaths that occurred in North East mines over the decades which were not connected to major disasters.

Deaths such as that of John Richard Heard are perhaps only remembered, if at all, by those whose family histories feature such terrible heartbreaking episodes. There must be many a family throughout the region who share in this unfortunate legacy with their own family tales to tell of men and boys who lost their lives in our North East mines.

The memorials do help us to remember how times can change. They can provoke us to ask questions about humanity itself and how we can make our lives better for future generations.

Let’s not let the miners who gave their lives, miners like fourteen-yea- old John Richard Heard, be forgotten.

________________________________________________________________________

The Durham Mining Museum (online resource)

To find out more about individual coal mines, mining disasters and pit fatalities in North East England I recommend visiting the fantastic Durham Miners Museum, an amazing online resource featuring vast amounts of information on coal mines, coal owners with extensive lists of names and information and reports about miners who were killed in the pit.  The site covers Northumberland as well as Durham and also lead and ironstone mining in places such as Cleveland and Cumberland. You can visit the site at www.dmm.org.uk/ 

Woodhorn Mining Museum

You can also find out more about the Hartley Colliery disaster and much else about the life of coal miners and coal mining in the region by visiting the fabulous Woodhorn Museum near Ashington

History Pages

About the history of the Easington area

About the history of the Stanley area

About the history of West Hartley and Seaton Delaval