|1860 Engraving from Illustrated London News|
Seventy-six men and boys were killed when the pit exploded on the 2nd March 1860. This is not the greatest pit disaster in terms of lives lost, which is why the incident has probably largely been forgotten about. But in 1860 Burradon was at the forefront of a campaign to make better the mineworkers' conditions.
"Appalling Accident at Burradon Colliery"
A summary of the events of the Burradon Mining Disaster - Friday, March 2nd 1860
At around nine in the morning one-hundred and eleven men and boys descended Burradon Pit to start their shift. Four men were entering the pit for the first time that day. John Carr was also returning to work for the first time since January 30th. He had left the pit on that day, with a colleague, complaining about the presence of explosive gases. On the morning of March 2nd, presumably by this stage nearly destitute, he informed his wife that he did not intend going down the pit ever again. When she asked how did he intend to earn a living, he realised there was no other choice than to put on his pit 'claes' and make his way to the colliery.
At around 2.30pm, William Urwin, a boy aged 14, was working in the southern part of the pit. This section was considered gaseous enough to warrant the use of safety lamps. Urwin was assisting Benjamin Nicholson, 43, a deputy overman. The pair noticed a sudden change in air pressure, which made their ears pop, and the noise of a small explosion. Nicholson shouted, "She's fired". Alarmed, Urwin started to run to the shaft. Many more young lads working in the vicinity also ran for the exit after having witnessed coal, props and dust being blown away. The air was becoming less breathable. The horses were also in a state of great agitation.
The boys who were running to the bottom of the shaft were met by overman William Alderson, who was making his way into the workings to assess the damage. He tried to persuade the boys to turn back, often forcibly, but with little success. At the bottom of the shaft they tried to attract the attention of the surface workers who had not yet realised an accident had occurred.
As Alderson made his way further into the pit, the surface workers were now becoming suspicious that all was not well down the mine. They had noticed a change in the air pressure coming from the shaft. One of the men went to inform William Kirkley, a senior overman of the colliery, who was busy putting up wages in the Colliery office. Kirkley immediately descended into the pit.
Kirkley met with the boys assembled at the bottom of the shaft and they proceeded to go back into the workings. About twenty minutes had elapsed since the explosion. Kirkley and the boys had made their way about one hundred yards into the mine. A massive explosion then occurred. Debris was blown right out of the shaft. Bratticing fell all around the miners and all the Davy lamps were extinguished. Kirkley took charge of the boys and helped them get back to the shaft. They were met by men and boys coming out of the North workings, which was largely unaffected by the explosion. The men in the North workings escaped with only minor injuries. By the time Kirkley was raised to the surface he was almost insensible because of the suffocating and poisonous air in the pit.
The force of the explosion had been felt on the surface and the residents of the nearby cottages ran to the pit head. Hastily, Thomas Fryer and Robert Jefferson descended into the pit to try and rescue missing sons. They only made it a couple of hundred yards before dying, having suffocated in the near oxygen-less air.
Some time later, other men had by now organised themselves into a rescue group and entered the mine. Quite quickly they started to find bodies. There were no more survivors. Each body was wrapped in a blanket, tied by a cord, and taken to the Colliery carpenter's shop, which was being used as a temporary morgue.
By late afternoon news of the disaster had spread further afield. Managers of nearby collieries and the Government Inspector of Mines had made their way to the colliery to lend their expertise to the rescue efforts. A reporter from the Newcastle Daily Chronicle was also present. He left the community at 8.00pm, with fifteen bodies having so far been recovered. Three were unidentifiable due to their dreadful injuries. Mix-ups in identification happened throughout the rescue process with corpses being taken to the wrong dwelling, only to be claimed later by the correct relatives. The Chronicle reporter stated how he was extremely distressed at having witnessed scenes of mothers weeping and wailing openly in the streets and to have heard the sound of wailing coming from the open cottage doors. Perhaps the loudest wailing may have been justifiably coming from the pit cottages of the Maddox family who lost five of their number.
At 1.00pm on the Saturday, at about three hundred yards into the southern workings, a breakthrough in the recovery efforts was made. After great efforts to shift debris, twenty-five persons were found. These had tried to make their way out after the first explosion, but their escape route had been blocked by debris. Thirteen of them were found hand in hand. Some were found huddled together in a capsized tub and two boys were found opposite each other in a crouched position with a dead mouse between them. All of the twenty-five had died by suffocation and displayed all the characteristics of this death - a pale blue bloated face. By late evening about fifty-six corpses in total had been brought to the surface. The manager of Seghill Colliery, John Fryer, had opened the door between Burradon and Seghill collieries to aid in the recovery of bodies in that district. George Maddox was recovered at the board of John Carr, the two of them being huddled together. Maddox's back was badly burnt.
Sunday was to be a day of great activity, although only one or two bodies were recovered. An enormous crowd gathered on the pit-heap, this being the day of rest, of course. Both the Daily Chronicle and the Shields Gazette thought the crowd to have been maybe twenty-five thousand strong. The Shields Gazette was very critical of the crowd, some of whom had taken picnics, reporting their behaviour to be not very befitting for such a sombre occasion. The Chronicle reporter said that they were just satisfying their "morbid curiosity". The public houses within the community were full to bursting point. The editor of the Daily Chronicle was taken underground on this day. He described a scene of utter chaos, with clothing and debris being strewn all around and the stench of decaying flesh being at times overpowering.
On Monday, March 5, what seemed like a continuous funeral procession took place. A large crowd of between three and four thousand people attended at Longbenton church. They acted with great dignity, wearing the correct black attire and "Sunday best". At 1.50am on this day the bodies of Thomas Fryer and Robert Jefferson were brought to the surface having being found looking peaceful.
On Tuesday morning the searchers found the remains of Benjamin Nicholson at the head of the twelfth pillar in the middle-south. This they concluded must be close to the source of the second explosion as Nicholson had been torn to pieces by the force of the eruption. His scattered remains had to be picked up on a shovel. He was completely unrecognizable and could only be identified by a peculiar mark on his cap.
On Wednesday it was considered safe to light the furnace at the bottom of the upcast shaft to restore ventilation. The Colliery was put back to work and a shift was sent down at 8.00pm, even though there were three bodies still missing.
On Tuesday, March 20, 1860, the Bishop of Durham visited the community. He was greeted by the manager, Charles Carr, and stayed for over two hours. He visited the sick and bereaved in their cottages. Also on this day the last body, that of Thomas Wilkinson, was recovered. Wilkinson was interred at Longbenton churchyard the following day. He was the last of seventy-six victims.
On a glorious day in May 1859 a large crowd of Burradon mineworkers and their families gathered in a field at Burradon farm. They were assembled to hear the editor of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, J. Baxter Langley, address them on the subject of establishing a miners' provident association: an insurance scheme to compensate victims families in case of the all too frequent calamities which happened in mines. The mine owner was to be approached in supporting this. A reliance on charity was the degrading solution then in place for the bereaved.
Click here for a Biography of Baxter Langley
Langley predicted that by the end of another 12 months a large number of the men and boys in front of him could be dead. It could be presumed that Burradon Colliery was considered unsafe.
Langley had been given an underground tour of the colliery. He was impressed, and maybe surprised, by the leading mineworkers' representatives of Burradon Colliery. He came to have a deep respect for these men: William Urwin, the secretary; George Maddox and William Alderson, amongst others. He wrote, "We talked of politics and social economics [in a way] which would have astonished Lord Shaftesbury and the Conservative members of the Coal Trade. We speak with a complete knowledge of the men employed in the Burradon pit when we say that, for integrity, generosity and general intelligence, we have never met with their superiors among any class of working-men".
It was the case that working-class men could not exercise much influence in their quest for better conditions. Baxter Langley was to use his influence, through his newspaper and owner the radical Joseph Cowen, to give the miners a much-needed voice.
On March 2nd 1860, as foreseen, the pit fired killing seventy-six, including Urwin, Maddox and Alderson. Langley and Cowen were good to their word and took up the cause with vigour. A relief fund was set up. The relief fund committee was dominated by coal owners and the well-to-do, despite the fact that most of the donated cash had come from working men. The miners campaigned for Langley to be allowed to sit on this committee. This was successfully rejected. The working men were annoyed and donated money to Langley and the Chronicle directly for distribution to the victims.
A coroner's inquest was immediately established. Langley and Cowen engaged the services of a barrister from London to represent the mineworkers.
The inquest was not concluded until April 18th. It was often a bad tempered, and sometimes farcical, affair. The coroner, Stephen Reed, often struggled to maintain authority in his courtroom. This was especially so when trying to silence Baxter Langley's attempts to suggest questions to the miners' barrister. The coroner had many years' experience in dealing with such inquests into mining accidents. But on this occasion he was facing a greater challenge than he could have expected. He was probably out of his depth.
The inquest failed to reach a conclusive verdict and Stephen Reed came under heavy criticism. The Coroner because of this criticism of himself in the newspapers, felt compelled to have a constable of the County Police Force summon together the jury to give him a certificate stating that he had conducted the inquest with impartiality. They refused to do this. This disclosure was made public by Baxter Langley who was very critical of the waste of police time.
Pictured is Charles Carr the viewer and part-owner of Burradon Colliery in March 1860, the time of the terrible explosion which claimed the lives of seventy-six. This photograph was taken in 1862 at New Hartley Colliery during rescue efforts at the infamous disaster which killed over two hundred men and boys (There is a theory that this photo was staged at a slightly later time). Charles Carr was also the viewer of New Hartley in 1862. A deputation of men, after the New Hartley tragedy, actually conveyed their commiserations to Carr on his double misfortune. But Roy Thompson, in his book "Thunder Underground", has the view that Charles Carr "walked on water".
"Thunder Underground is a fascinating read which examines the politics surrounding the mine disasters investigated by by Northumberland coroner Stephen Reed between 1815 and 1865. It also gives biographical accounts of the main characters involved with Stephen Reed being examined in some detail. The book describes the mining operations in place at the time.
Lawyers for the mineworkers tried to prove culpability on the part of the owners of Burradon Colliery. This was in the hope of being awarded compensation for the families of the victims.
Despite hearing scientific evidence that the mine was not adequately ventilated, all safety measures available not employed and that Carr had misled the jury, a verdict of accidental death was recorded at the conclusion to the inquest. Was the verdict because of class unity or a pragmatic decision on the part of Stephen Reed, who realised that many men relied on the output of the colliery for their livelihood. It was recognised, however, that having financial interests in a mining operations was a conflict of interest in the safe management of collieries.
After March 1860 Carr's involvement in Burradon colliery diminished and as previously mentioned went on to suffer an even greater loss in 1862.
The senior supervisory figures of Burradon colliery were often uneasy witnesses at the inquest. They did state that they had instruction to take whatever measures at whatever the expense to ensure the safety of the colliery. It was clear, however, that some miners had been fearful of the pit's condition for some time. It was proved that the management had altered colliery plans before production to the inquest to show that the colliery ventilation was better managed than it really was.
Many aspects of mining safety and miners' living conditions had come under scrutiny in the couple of years preceding the disaster. It was to campaign for these issues and the adoption of the Miners' Provident Association Baxter Langley addressed an open-air meeting on the Newcastle Town Moor in June 1860. The Association was formed without the coal owners support. The meeting, however, was poorly attended and Langley voiced his disappointment at this. The leading mineworkers had all been killed in the disaster. The momentum and opportunity for change was largely lost. The status quo was resumed. Lives had been lost in vain. The importance of the Burradon Disaster was soon forgotten.
The Burradon Mining Disaster 1860: A Detailed Account, 1996, Alan Fryer