Little Bits of History

January 16

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 16, 2017

1862: The Hartley Colliery disaster occurs. Also known as the Hartley Pit or Hester Pit disaster, it was a coal mining disaster in Northumberland, England. The coal mining venture began at the Hartley old pit near the coastline with earliest extant records dating from 1291. Because of the location near the North Sea, flooding became an ever increasing problem and by 1760 the first atmospheric engine was installed. This was an ingenious method of using a steam engine to pump water out of mines, developed in 1712. Even with improved engines, the old pit was finally abandoned in 1844 due to the incoming water. However, the coal deposits were still valuable enough to drop a new shaft and continue mining. A new seam was opened on May 29, 1846 and a village grew up around it. Since women and children were not permitted to be miners, the standard of living was greater than normal and the families thrived in this new location.

The standard of the time called for a single shaft twelve feet wide to be dug for access to the seam of coal, deep underground. The shaft also was where the pumps were located and the means of getting fresh air to the miners. Since this was a single shaft colliery, a timber brattice (a dividing wall where fresh air goes down one side and  stale air is removed from the other) was built. The pit was called a wet pit and was known for flooding, so keeping the pumps functional was a priority. They were also in the shaft, uploading water and keeping the miners safe. On this day, the men were switching positions of front team to back team at 10:30 AM. The first eight men were ascending the pit when the beam of the pumping station snapped and fell down the shaft, destroying most of the brattice in the fall. Four of the men fell; four of the men held on to the snapped cable.

The beam jammed into the shaft and debris fell, causing a blockage 90 feet deep. Rescue efforts began immediately when Matthew Chapman, a deputy just off shift, heard the noise and hurried back to the mine. He attempted to enter the shaft, lowering himself on a rope and to clear the way using an ax. Soon more help arrived and efforts began in earnest. The plight of the trapped men was twofold, lack of fresh air and impending flooding. Speed was of the essence but the volume of the collapse was daunting. By Friday, the men were about 30 feet apart, with those from the top digging down and those from the bottom, digging upwards. The another collapse let more debris into the pit.

By Tuesday, the air was so bad, rescuers could only work in twenty minute shifts, but work continued. More help arrived and eventually it was possible to lower food to the trapped miners. When they finally broke through on Wednesday, the air was so filled with carbon monoxide, the rescuers were forced back. Rather than an rescue, it now became a recovery event. In all, 204 men and boys were killed in the accident. England’s law for coal mines was amended to include the need for a second shaft or outlet to be part of every mine, allowing for escape for those in the pits. Parliament passed this law less than six months after the inquest suggesting such and not only all new mines, but also all existing mines were required to have an escape route available.

The Jury cannot close this painful inquiry without expressing their strong opinion of the imperative necessity that all working collieries should have at least a second shaft or outlet, to afford the workmen the means of escape should any obstruction take place. – Inquest verdict

Coal mining is an industry rife with mismanagement, corruption, greed and an almost blatant disregard for the safety, health and quality of life of its work force. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known it. – Tawni O’Dell

Mining is like a search-and-destroy mission. – Stewart Udall

I’m lucky to have a job doing something I really love to do, and I’m happy to accept the pressures of relentless deadlines or reader expectations as necessary evils. It’s probably not as stressful as mining coal or leading men into battle. – Grant Morrison

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