Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – blogs on the tragic 1835 colliery accident at Wallsend, the contemporary account of which has been reprinted as one of the titles in our Found on The Shelves series, published by Pushkin Press to coincide with our 175th anniversary.
In 1835, the Gala Day of the Sunday Schools for which the town of Wallsend had been preparing, never took place. The spice loaves the miners’ wives had baked the week before for this day of happiness and celebration on the eve of the summer solstice was served instead at dozens of wakes:
“On Monday the entire vicinity of the mine presented an appearance indescribably agonizing. On the afternoon of that day, about 60 bodies were conveyed, in carts, to the parish church, where they were interred.”
These were the first 60 casualties of a colliery explosion that would claim the lives of 102 men and boys.
The people of Wallsend were no strangers to having their loved ones ripped away from them. Over the previous 53 years ten separate explosions had caused a total of 91 deaths, but 18 June 1835 went down in Tyneside history as the date of the worst disaster the town had ever suffered. Much has been written about this tragedy but A Full Account of the Dreadful Explosion of Wallsend Colliery by Which 101 Human Beings Perished! is a contemporary version, so contemporary that the death toll in the title is premature and sadly incomplete. The original was a humble chapbook, printed cheaply for a poor public hungry for affordable reading material, preferably of a sensational nature. In 24 pages with ever-decreasing print size, the anonymous author managed to squeeze in not just the advertised full account of the explosion but also of the ensuing rescue efforts, the funerals and the inquest that was quickly set up in order to try and find out why what should have been a day like any other turned into a nightmare of desolation and despair.
It was an ordinary Thursday. The mine had undergone the usual safety checks and everything seemed normal – that is, no worse or more dangerous than usual. Nearly all the hewers – strong grown men who skilfully cut the coal away from the earth – had finished their shift at eleven a.m., having started at two a.m. At half past four in the morning, the ‘putters’ – youngsters from the age of 8 or 9 through to their teens or early twenties at most, overseen by older men – had started the work of putting the hewn coal in corves (special containers) to be sent up to the surface. They were still underground at two p.m. when the explosion occurred. A banksman, who stood on the surface by the edge of the pit and was emptying the corves the putters had sent up on chains attached to a rope, quickly stepped back when he felt a rumble below ground and a blast of air from the pit blew his hat off and the corf he had emptied into the air:
“The rushing of foul air to the mouth of the shaft, bringing up with it some of the pitmen’s clothes and other light articles from the bottom, left no room for conjecture as to what had occurred in the mine.”
When he was able to approach the mouth of the shaft he shouted down but no one replied. He got the engine going to pull the rope up but it wouldn’t move and when more power was applied it broke off. There was little doubt then that only death lay below.
Some immediate rescue efforts proved fruitless, dangerous and exhausting. There was so little hope of finding anyone alive that when the man in charge of the mine, the ‘viewer’, John Buddle, arrived in the evening he made the unpopular decision to give the rescue team a few hours’ rest before making any further attempts. Some felt that the air in the mine would only get worse when the furnaces died out and wanted to act immediately. Two teams of volunteers ventured down and found some bodies but were overcome by the foul air and were unable to bring the dead back with them. Buddle’s team did not fare much better until the air courses began to be repaired. The first of the bodies were retrieved on the Friday and on Saturday three men and a boy were found alive, although one of the men died days later. Meanwhile, wives and mothers waited “in silent despair”, sheltering from the torrential rain in a shed near one of the pits. The same shed where a number of coffins also waited.
Over the next few days more bodies were “brought up” and the full horror of the effects of the explosion unfolded:
“The bodies were removed to the houses of their respective friends, and the entire community of the colliery was in a state of the most dreadful agitation and distress. Several of the bodies were black, shrivelled, and burnt; one or two were mutilated, but the greater portion, having been suffocated by the after damp, had the appearance of being in a tranquil sleep.”
The inquest quickly found that no one could be held responsible for what were concluded to be accidental deaths and the coroner’s closing address, though probably well-meaning, was not well received. In his view, Providence had not been ‘unwatchful’ since so many of the dead were too young to have dependants or great sins to answer for.
The loss to the mining community of Wallsend is unimaginable. The account tells us that “the workmen of each colliery form, with their families, a distinct colony.” And it was a very tightly-knit colony with the interrelated families living side by side on the same few streets. Fathers and sons, brothers – in some cases as many as three from one family -, cousins, friends and neighbours were suddenly taken away. In some cases, widowed mothers lost the sons they depended on to feed their younger children.
Miners were driven to their perilous work by poverty, were imprisoned or fined if they absented themselves from work for a single day. Their working conditions were horrendous and their working lives, which sometimes began at the age of five often came to a brutally abrupt end. The families of those who died that day at Wallsend received some financial relief but nothing could have compensated them for their hideous loss. There was nothing fair about the tragedy and nothing to be grateful for. Some of the victims died instantly but some boys had time to cling to others in terror before their end in a network of dark tunnels almost immediately below the village school where they rightfully belonged.