Haswell - the 1844 Pit Disaster.
The 1844 Miner's Strike.
The 1844 strike saw a long and bitter struggle between the miners and the Colliery owners. Times had never been worse. At first, the miners were asked to leave their homes voluntarily, but when they refused the mine owners resorted to violent means. Thugs from the towns, known as the 'candymen', were employed to physically evict the miners, their families and their belongings. There was great hardship and poverty everywhere until the miners were finally starved into submission.
Like many others Haswell had been a blackleg colliery and during the strike the employers brought in 'scab' labour from towns and farms all over the country to work down the mines, taking the place of the men who had stood by the union. Lacking the necessary skills, this labour had been useless, dangerous and unproductive and when the strike ended the Haswell Coal Company cast them off with little thought or consideration.
The 1844 strike had only been ended for a few weeks and time was needed for re-adjustment. In most colliery villages the bitterness would be forgotten in the passing of time, but in Haswell it would be different.
On the morning of Saturday September 28th 1844 most of the miners were only too pleased to be returning to work. The Hutton seam waited, a 5' 5" thick seam of superior quality coal which sold for the highest prices on the London market as well as at Plummer's, Wallsend and the Company was taking out the best and most easily worked coal first. A practice not uncommon amongst the coal companies.
This was, however, a dangerous practice for the men themselves. The miners most deadly enemy was imprisoned in the unworked seams above and, when fractures were caused by the workings, firedamp worked its way along these fractures into the seam below. The extended workings became a huge receptacle for the gas.
One of the jobs on the shift that day was an operation known as 'drawing the jud'. A pillar of coal had been extracted and the wooden props supporting the roof or 'jud' had to be drawn so that the roof would fall. It was a dangerous task but the usual safety precautions were observed before the task of removing the props was begun. Small pieces of roof began to fall, bigger pieces crashed down; then a crack like thunder was followed by a blinding flash. At 3.20pm Haswell pit had fired.
The awful explosion at Haswell Colliery © Illustrated London News
Of the 99 men underground at that moment only four escaped. They had all been working near the shaft and were protected from the blast by a nearby pony and tubs.
The blast had caused so much damage that the pit was filled with choke-damp and there was a great delay in recovering the bodies. The first body to be recovered was that of 13 year old John Willis. Those killed by the flame were blackened and scorched, some were barely recognisable. Others had been killed by the choke-damp but otherwise untouched. Rescuers found the body of Elliot Richardson sitting beside a prop with his watch still ticking. Twenty putters were found huddled together clasping each others hands.
In the Long Row every house but one had its dead. In one house four coffins stood. Haswell became a village of mourning. Because the village did not have its own Church and graveyard the victims were buried in different places, some at Easington, some at Gateshead, but many were buried in a communal grave at South Hetton. The October 5th 1844 edition of the Illustrated London News reported on the funeral commenting: "The funerals were decently conducted and the spectacle was a most touching and melancholy scene."
Haswell Colliery burial of the dead © Illustrated London News
Michael Faraday was sent by the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel to investigate the explosion. Men like James Mather, W. P. Roberts and Martin Jude began to fight and agitate for safer conditions in the mines and as a direct consequence, far-reaching legislation like the Mines Regulations Act and Inspection of Mines Act would be passed.