A hundred and fifty years on, the accident at the Hester Pit, Hartley, which killed 204 men and boys is not forgotten...
The Hartley Pit Calamity is still remembered in the North East as one of the worst mining disasters in England: 204 men and boys lost their lives. A beam on the pumping engine failed, killing five miners on their way to the surface. The debris blocked the lift shaft, trapping those still underground.
As the first mining disaster of the Victorian period on such a scale, the Hartley Calamity continues to resonate, despite the widespread calamity enacted by the Thatcher government on mine workers. Pits can be closed, but memories remain open.
This newly made banner will get its first outing at the Durham Miners’ Gala this month.
The Hester Pit, to give it its proper name, had only a single shaft, as was usual at the time. That served not only as the entrance and exit, but also for the pumping out of water by a beam engine next to the shaft.
At 10 am on Thursday 16 January 1862 a shift change was taking place underground when the heavy cast iron beam snapped without warning. A considerable tonnage dropped into the shaft as it killed those in the cage. A section of beam lodged like a bone in the throat of the mine, trapping the rest of the two shifts underground.
With no other exit, there was no means of escape. Despite frantic rescue attempts involving workers from other mines, it took six days to reach the trapped miners. All 199, some as young as 10, had by then succumbed to the gas which had held up the rescuers.
It was well-known by 1862 that cast iron was brittle and prone to sudden breakage. But the great extent of the disaster was not directly due to the broken beam. Nearly all the dead perished for want of a second exit. A memorial in the grounds of the local church, St Alban’s, Earsdon, provides a record in stone of each of their names.
The 150th anniversary of the Calamity has been marked by the community in a variety of ways. An evening of music and songs was held in the Memorial Hall and there was a dedicated church service at which “The Hartley Calamity” – a ballad poem by the pitman poet Joseph Skipsey (1832 to 1903) was read. And a book entitled Still the Sea Rolls On – The Hartley Pit Calamity of 1862 has been compiled.
The village of New Hartley has produced two banners bearing the name of the Hester Pit to be carried in this year’s procession at the Durham Miners’ Gala in July. Until then, the banners have a place of honour in the Memorial Hall along with a series of cross-stitch pennants, hung proudly along the wall, recording the names of those who died.
Local school children have made their contribution by producing fine fabric collages portraying scenes then and now with, in total, over two hundred birds in flight, one for each victim.
This is not just an event that happened 150 years ago, but a community still active on its own behalf, aware of its history and traditions while still fully engaged with the present world. Contained within the commemorations are thoughts about the 2010 Chilean miners, trapped so long underground though ultimately rescued, and the Greymouth tragedy in New Zealand in the same year but with a different outcome.
A speaker at one of the events made mention that mining accidents continue to claim the lives of miners, only today it is in China rather than Northumberland.
Much is made in the media and by politicians about the need to reward entrepreneurs with bonuses – otherwise they are unwilling to do their jobs. But the working class will give of their creativity and labour freely for their community, as the commemorative book and all the other events demonstrate. No one here has earned a penny for themselves.
This book contains Skipsey’s “The Hartley Calamity”, which is doubly appropriate, this being the 180th anniversary of his birth in Percy Main North Shields where he became a colliery worker at the age of seven. A self-taught man, he demonstrated the potential within members of the working class by going on to become a librarian, custodian of Shakespeare’s birthplace, and gain a Civil List pension for his literary work.
Still the Sea Rolls On – The Hartley Pit Calamity of 1862 compiled by Keith Armstrong and Peter Dixon, 2012. Northern Voices Community Projects supported by North Tyneside Council. ISBN 978-1-871536-20-1
This publication combines a history of the event, illustrated with drawings, photographs and documentary evidence of the time, with present day poetry, stories, photographs and drawings by local people. The contents are varied, with each a fitting tribute to those being commemorated, their lives, however short, celebrated.
Copies can be obtained from, 93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, NE26 3JD, priced £7.99.
This item is an edited version of one that first appeared in www.imarxman.wordpress.com ■