Hartley Pit Disaster
As recent events have tragically demonstrated anew, mining is a hazardous occupation. It was far more dangerous in the Victorian era, when materials were less reliable and safety standards lower. Unlike some other disasters, the tragedy a century and a half ago at Hartley Colliery Pit near Seaton Delaval in Northumbria was not caused by wilful negligence by owners, as would be the case at Blantyre in the following decade. With greater care, however, it might have been avoided – indeed the very design of the pit was deficient as regards safety.
On the morning of Thursday January 16 1862 the great cast iron beam of the pumping engine at the top of the single mineshaft broke and tumbled down the void. It had probably been damaged during recent repair work, and metal fatigue was surely another factor. Fatefully the break occurred at changeover time, so along with the new shift most of the men who had finished for the day were still down the pit. A cage on the way up the shaft carrying some miners who had ended work was smashed by the metal, three inside killed instantly, two others falling to their deaths, and more hanging on for dear life for hours until they were rescued.
As the beam clattered down the shaft it brought with it the wooden lining and some stonework used to reinforce the walls, and the central wooden partition or brattice that divided the single shaft into two sections for ventilation purposes – one side having air pumped in, the other to release it.
It seems the metal arm lodged about halfway down, other debris piling on top of it and sealing the route. Men in the mine attempted desperately to clear the blockage, though it was largely out of reach. Rescuers were lowered from the surface, held by harnesses at the end of lengthy lines. The restricted space meant that only three or four could operate at once.
The breakthrough only came on January 22, when William Adams and two others were able to enter the workings. They found that all 215 men and boys had died, asphyxiated. Fathers were found with their arms around their sons, family groups who had awaited the inevitable with courage and dignity. The oldest to die was William Gledson, aged 71; the youngest James Duffy who was just 10 – many others not yet in their teens perished with him.
Queen Victoria contributed to the relief fund, which with the City of London, Lloyds and other corporations along with members of the public giving generously became sizeable. Some lessons were learned - the law was changed to make it a requirement to have two shafts for each pit - but many more mining disasters would follow, most devastatingly at Caerphilly in 1913 when 439 perished.
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