Excerpt for One Year Of Hell: The Heart-Breaking True Story Of The 1880 Seaham Colliery Disaster by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The High Colliery (originally Seaton Colliery) – Known as No. 3 Pit

The Low Colliery (Seaham Colliery) – Known as No. 1 and 2 Pit

Sketches by The Illustrated London News September 1880

Front cover: The “Hell-Fire” Pit – Seaham Colliery


The True Story of the 1880

Seaham Colliery Disaster

by Fred Cooper


The right of Fred Cooper to be identified as the Author of the work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form without the prior written consent of the Author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Copyright © 2019 Fred Cooper


Title page

About this book


Chapter 1 – The sinking of Seaton and Seaham Collieries

Chapter 2 – Why the “Hell-Fire” pit

Chapter 3 – The poor trapper boy – The 1852 explosion

Chapter 4 – Two pits become one

Chapter 5 – The elusive 1864 explosion

Chapter 6 – The curse of the curve – The 1871 explosion

Chapter 7 – The daily work at Seaham Colliery in 1880

Chapter 8 – The beginning of one year of hell – The 1880 explosion

Chapter 9 – The loss of life is much greater than first thought

Chapter 10 – The first inquest is opened

Chapter 11 – The burials begin

Chapter 12 – The winner of the Queens gold cup is buried

Chapter 13 – The adjourned first inquest is re-opened

Chapter 14 – Exploration continues into No. 1 pit

Chapter 15 – Messages from the dead

Chapter 16 – The Relief Funds

Chapter 17 – Explorers find more messages from the dead

Chapter 18 – The Maudlin seam is on fire

Chapter 19 – The adjourned first inquest resumes

Chapter 20 – The strike begins

Chapter 21 – The adjourned first inquest resumes again

Chapter 22 – The widows appeal to the Relief Committee

Chapter 23 - The strike is causing real deprivation

Chapter 24 – Striking miners assault blacklegs

Chapter 25 – Five striking miners charged with assault

Chapter 26 – Mass meeting of miners from other pits

Chapter 27 – The strike is resolved

Chapter 28 – The fate of the “sacrificed men”

Chapter 29 – The verdict of the inquest is declared

Chapter 30 – The Maudlin seam is re-opened

Chapter 31 – The bodies of the missing men are found

Chapter 32 – The final inquest

Chapter 33 – The Durham Miners Association

Chapter 34 – One Year of Hell

Chapter 35 – In Memoriam

Pit Terminology & Glossary

Appendix 1 – The N&D Miners Permanent Relief Fund

Appendix 2 – Details of the bodies recovered and interred

Bibliography and References

Other books by the author


Coal mining has been an essential part of British industry since Roman times. Before nationalization of the coal industry in 1947 the ownership of coal mines in Britain was fragmented and each colliery or group of collieries were under the management of a small but powerful group of coal owners. In general the coal owners, with a few exceptions, were motivated by profit more than by social responsibility. The prosperity of the British nation has always been sustained by the labours of the coalminer. When the price of coal was high the coal owner produced more and made higher profits but when the market price fell the coal owner reduced wages or laid men off. Throughout the 19th century the British claim to be the leading industrial nation of the developed world was fuelled by the coal dug out of the earth by the coalminer.

The British coalminer was accustomed to many hardships in his day-to-day toil beneath the earth. He and his family endured the effects of strikes and industrial action fighting for his rights to a fair days work for a fair days pay. Danger from roof falls, injury from heavy machinery, fear of explosions and industrial diseases such as emphysema and pneumoconiosis became a constant partner in the coal miner’s life. Their work and conditions down the mine could be described as a battle with nature.

Coal mining had always been sensitive to the economic barometer of the UK economy as it swung from periods of prosperity to depression. From the start of the industrial revolution whole communities had to be prepared for upheaval when collieries closed or workers were laid off. In times of great need the British miner knuckled down and pulled out all of the stops to improve productivity. During World War Two many young men, some reluctant and some willing Bevan Boys, did their bit for King and Country down the coalmines.

In County Durham the coalmines dominated the people in the same way they dominated and scarred the landscape. The coalminer had a unique culture and language developed through their hard lives and experiences in the mining community. Many colliery lodges had their own brass bands and miners were typified by their hobbies and pastimes of green bowls, pigeon “fancying”, leek and vegetable growing, flower shows, greyhound or whippet racing - all “fresh air” pursuits - and of course by their mode of dress with waistcoats, silk scarves and the traditional flat cap. Some took up painting as a hobby such as the Pitmen Painters of Ashington and many attended College to improve their position in life for their wives and children.

In some ways the life of a coal miner could be described as a great adventure overcoming hardships and adversity. But sometimes incredibly terrible things happen down the mine. This book re-tells the horrors of six explosions underground in the first thirty years of its existence. The last explosion became known as the Seaham Colliery Disaster. On 8th September 1880 an explosion rocked the pit and the pit village of Seaham Colliery. The disaster caused the death of 164 men and boys at Seaham Colliery and threw the grieving mining community into industrial unrest for more than a year after the explosion. The story of the disaster has been told many times by local historians. This book brings together all previously known published literature and together with new research it explores and comments on the events of the first five explosions. It then takes the reader through the sixth explosion – The 1880 Seaham Colliery Disaster - one year of hell, torment and suffering in Seaham from 8th September 1880 until the final body was recovered from the mine exactly one year later.


The research and writing of a book that tells the story of One Year of Hell – The 1880 Seaham Colliery Disaster has taken me a lifetime. It has not filled my life and it has not been my sole preoccupation. To the contrary I have filled my life with my family, my career as Finance Director at The University of Sunderland and, since retirement, writing about the history of Seaham.

When I say it has taken me a lifetime I mean it has been lingering in the back of my mind throughout my life and every now and then something happens to stir my thoughts reminding me of those horrific events in my hometown. It could be an event, a smell, a photograph, a childhood memory or a story that brings the Hell Fire Pit back to my mind. My family moved from Seaham Harbour to Seaham Colliery when I was just a boy. Every weekend many of my dads’ friends and neighbours could be found in our front room sitting on a cracket in front of the coal fire talking about work down the pit while dad cut their hair with hand sheers and scissors. The favour was reciprocated when dad needed his hair cut. Why pay a barber if you can do it yourself? A pair of boots lasted an eternity when I was a boy. If they needed a new sole or heel dad would buy a sheet of leather; cut and trim the shape of the sole or heel; nail the new leather to the boot using a cobbler’s last; wax the newly cut leather and put in a few “segs” that made a clip clop sound on the school assembly hall floor. Job done – another expense spared. Although the pithead baths at the Knack Pit opened in 1951 many of the older miners were accustomed to coming off shift and walking home black and grimy, covered in coal dust and with their pit clothes on. This was scary to a three year old. The sight of a group of black faced pitmen walking home past our front gate quickly had me running indoors. As the years rolled by the numbers walking home “black” dwindled as most miners saw the benefits of taking a hot shower at the new pithead baths rather than washing in the tin bath at home in front of the fire. From my bedroom window on an evening I could see and hear the work going on at the pithead only four hundred yards from our house.

The silhouette of the High Pit dominated the view from Eastlea Road

The pit yard was my playground during the day and the washery and screens were lit up throughout the night. The sight and sounds of the tubs leaving the cage at the pithead and clanking and banging as they progressed up the gantry on their way to the washery became a familiar noise in my ears as I went to sleep. My thoughts often lingered on the work of the pitmen employed in every conceivable skill and trade who laboured to win that coal and bring it to the surface. Power loaders, stonemen, development workers, fitters, electricians, blacksmiths, joiners, onsetters and many others all worked underground in teams winning the coal. On bank were the washery and screen hands, labourers, maintenance shop men, steam engine shunters and railway workers employed to escort the coal wagons down the mile long inclined railway to the docks.

My father worked underground. He was an experienced and hardworking collier who was always concerned for others before himself. I could only have been seven or eight years old when the front door knocker rapped and mother answered the door to find an ambulance driver stood on the step. She dashed out to the ambulance to find Dad lying on a stretcher. An endless haulage wire rope had snapped and the whiplash had caught him on the back and neck. Despite being in tremendous pain he had insisted that the ambulance driver brought him home so he could reassure mam that everything was alright before they took him to hospital. He constantly reminded me from a very early stage that he would never allow me to work down the mine. This was a far cry from the early days of the 19th and 20th century at Seaham Colliery when it was accepted that your dad spoke to the overman and you were set on to work down the pit the week after you left school. Well – I was set on to start work at Seaham Colliery three weeks after leaving school. To my Dad’s relief and delight I began my long career in financial management in the newly built Wages Office just along from the lamp cabin and next to the time office. So I was brought up, educated, worked and experienced life in a colliery village amongst family and friends most of whom worked at and down the pit. I knew about the Seaham Colliery disasters. I was aware of the dangers of working in the mine. Amongst other duties as a junior in the wages office I had to fill in miners claim forms for industrial injury benefit (Form BI76). Details were taken from accident report forms made out by the Deputy. Although there were no major disasters during my time at Seaham Colliery the accident report forms made explicit the dreadful injuries to miners arising from their day-to-day work.

In re-telling the story of the “One Year of Hell” I have to acknowledge all of the men and women I grew up with in the colliery village; my school friends; my work colleagues in the 1960’s and 1970’s and my family. All of these people shaped my views on life in general and the way of life of an extraordinary social and cultural group – the coalminers of Seaham Colliery. I begin the book with a general description of the Durham coalfield and the building and development of the town of Seaham and the pit village of Seaham Colliery. For those readers who are unaccustomed to life in a coal mining community, pitmatic terms and phrases I have provided a glossary of coalmining names, terms and descriptions at the end of the book which may help in understanding the events of the disasters as they unfold.

There are a number of individuals and groups who have provided photographs, information, facts and personal experiences and reminiscences which have enriched the content of this book and for which I am extremely grateful. For any contributors that I have overlooked to mention I do apologise.

My sincere thanks for your assistance are extended to: -

Linda and Bill Baker, Seaham Family History Group

Alan Charlton, Seaham Family History Group

Brian Scollen, East Durham Heritage & Lifeboat Group

Fred Cooper BSc ACMA CGMA


The Durham coalfield and the sinking of

Seaton and Seaham Collieries

The presence of coal beneath the surface of County Durham had been known since Roman times. Through many centuries the process of mining for coal has developed into an industry. In many districts where coal was near the surface it was collected and used in blacksmiths furnaces but in medieval times by far the greater number of our ancestors preferred charcoal for domestic purposes. However, attitudes began to change from the 16th century and the domestic and foreign demand for coal prompted greater and deeper exploration into the Durham coalfield.

Coal in the County Durham coalfield occurs in seams of various thicknesses and quality and at a range of depths up to 2,000 feet below the surface. Not all of the seams are workable. In the west of Durham some of the coal seams outcrop on the surface and, covered by clay, sand or gravel, they can be easily mined whilst towards the Durham coast the seams extend far below and under the sea and can only be reached by sinking deep shafts. As a consequence communities were first populated and coal mining activity began first in the west of Durham. Gradually shaft sinking technology and know-how advanced and the problems of penetrating deeper into the earth were overcome and coal owners began financing deep coal mines nearer the coast.

Mining engineers found that once a coal seam was reached it was not a straightforward process to follow the coal seam until it was worked out. In many places in the Durham coalfield there are geological faults where the seam drops or rises and consequently the miner has to find a way through the fault back to a workable coal seam. These faults in many cases can cause the coal seams to dip and rise at very steep angles and if not overcome can lead to the closure of the mine (DCEC Group, 1993).

Diagram 1 below shows the various coal seams in the Durham coalfield with the common names used by the Durham miners. The main geological faults can be seen on the sketch. A fault in the workings at Seaham Colliery a little to the east of the downcast shaft (No. 1 and 2 Pit) was sometimes locally referred to as the “troubles”. The width of the coal seams varied from 1 foot in the west of Durham to 4 feet towards the coast and in some exceptional cases up to 8 feet. At Seaham the middle seams i.e., the Main Coal (5 feet thick), Maudlin (4 feet thick), Low Main (4 feet thick) and Hutton (4 feet thick) were the most productive. At the coast the Main Coal seam generally lays at 1,400 feet; the Maudlin seam at 1,500 feet; the Low Main seam at 1,550 feet and the Hutton seam at 1,600 feet below the surface.

At Seaham Colliery the depth of each seam including the depth beyond the fault was as follows: -.

Diagram of levels at Seaham Colliery on 8th September 1880

The creation of Seaham Harbour and the pit community at Seaham Colliery is the most remarkable of any town in the Durham coalfield. In 1808 Seaham was, according to a diarist “Memoirs of a Highland Lady” (Smith, 1898) a most primitive hamlet, a dozen or so cottages; no trade; no manufacture; no business; residents were mostly the servants of Sir Ralph Milbanke and apart from the Clergyman’s family there were none of the gentler degree. The most memorable event to occur at Seaham was the marriage of Lord George Byron on January 2nd, 1815 to Miss Isabella Milbanke at Seaham House. Her father Sir Ralph Milbanke was the first to envisage a bustling harbour at Dalden Ness just half a mile from his manor house at Old Seaham. Plans were drawn up for “Port Milbanke” but his ambitions were abandoned when Sir Ralph fell into financial difficulties because of his constant electioneering as a Member of Parliament in addition to the payment of a dowry to Lord Byron upon the marriage of his daughter. In 1820 the port and town still did not exist. The 3rd Marquess of Londonderry who bought the twin estates of Seaham and Dalton in 1821 knew of the proposal and decided that a port at Dalden Ness would be ideal for shipping coals from his wife’s’ mines in Pittington and Rainton. Building of the harbour was begun by the eminent engineer William Chapman on a lonely and uninhabited part of the coast and on 28th November 1828 the port and town of Seaham Harbour was officially inaugurated. The famous Newcastle architect, John Dobson, was commissioned to design the town which originally was planned around a main street flanked by two crescents facing the sea. Three classes of houses would be constructed. The first class houses in the South Crescent would have six rooms; the second class houses in the North Crescent would have four rooms and the third class houses would be cottages flanking each side of the railway line leading down into the docks. Although the Marquess was pleased with the plans he did not have enough financial backing to proceed with such grand proposals. He chose instead to lease land to individual builders for shops, industrial premises and domestic housing and so the ambitious ideas and uniformity of construction in Dobson’s plan was lost. The local workforce was inadequate to satisfy the demand for labour in the town and the port and a flood of immigrants arrived. Within thirty years the port could accommodate three hundred ships and the population of the town had grown to exceed 8,000 persons.

Coal mining at Seaham began with the sinking of Seaton Colliery by the Hetton Coal Company in 1844. It was owned by The Earl of Durham and later known as “The High Pit”. Two staples of six feet diameter were first put down on 31st July 1844 and the actual sinking commenced on 12th August 1845. It was feared that problems would be found with sinking through water bearing strata similar to that found during the sinking of Murton Colliery six years earlier. The difficulties encountered in the sinking of Murton Colliery pushed costs up to £80,000 (Fordyce, 1860) as two high-pressure engines of 450 horse power supplied with steam from eighteen cylindrical boilers and flanked by two chimneys each eighty feet high were needed to drain the incessant flow of water into the shaft. Although the sinkers worked in appalling conditions at Seaton Colliery to everyone’s relief the difficulties were overcome and the water was adequately pumped out as the shaft progressed with a diameter of 14 feet and to a depth of 1,839 feet.

By the latter half of the 1840’s the best seams of coal at pits belonging to The Marchioness of Londonderry at Rainton and Pittington were becoming exhausted. Consequently the sinking of a second pit at Seaham by the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry to be called Seaham Colliery began on 13th April 1949 only 150 yards apart from the shaft of Seaton Colliery. Using the same equipment the sinkers constructed a shaft 14 feet in diameter and to a depth of 1,797 feet. Three months after the start of sinking operations in July 1849 the sinkers discovered a toad embedded in the limestone 183 feet from the surface. It was sent to bank alive but died a few minutes afterwards. It was given to Tommy Chilton of the Mill Inn who was known as Nicky Knack because of the collection of curiosities that he displayed at the Inn. The colliery at Seaham was soon to take on that nickname of the “Knack Pit”. Both of the sinking operations at Seaham were managed by Mr Nicholas Wood, later to become President of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, and John Buddle the renowned Coal Mining Engineer and Colliery Viewer who was later succeeded by Mr George Hunter. No pumping engines were erected but the two 150-horse power winding engines were adapted for pumping by attaching a pumping beam 36 feet long to work a series of pumps with a 19 inch working barrel (Fordyce, 1860).

By early 1852 sinking operations were fully completed at Seaham Colliery and on 22nd May the Newcastle Journal carried an advertisement offering for sale by public auction all of the materials and equipment employed in the sinking and winning of the two collieries. Almost three years after sinking operations began the first coal at Seaham Colliery later known as “The Low Pit” was drawn on 27th March 1852.

Every colliery shaft sunk in the Durham coalfield promoted the growth of a settlement around the mine composed entirely of the coalmining community. Surrounding the two pits of Seaton and Seaham Colliery twenty-one rows of miners’ houses were built between the 1850’s and the 1890’s to accommodate over 800 miners and their families. Tenders for the first of the colliery houses were advertised in the Newcastle Courant on 15th August 1851. The advertisement read “To Contractors: Tender to be let for the building of eighty pitmens’ cottages at Seaton Colliery. Plans will be deposited with Mr William Coulson at the Colliery Office who will give any other information that may be required”. Many of the colliery houses were built with little regard to the necessities of the people who had to occupy them. Streets were unpaved and undrained; water was provided by a communal standpipe and toilet facilities consisted of an outside “privy-midden” where coal ash from the coal fire was thrown in on one side whilst the other side served as a latrine. In the absence of a proper sewage system the coal ash was thrown down the latrine to mask the smell. The privy-middens were cleaned out regularly onto hand carts by men employed by the local health board and the contents were incinerated or composted into fertiliser. The houses were divided into three classes. The first class houses were usually allocated to the colliery officials and had two rooms on the ground floor with a kind of loft above that was reached by a ladder. The next class had only one room below with a loft above while the third class had only one room on the ground level.

The colliery houses at Seaham Colliery were built and owned by Lord Londonderry the coal owner. In some of the other colliery districts the houses were built by private builders who would lease each of the houses to the coal owner for £3 or £4 per year. The miner occupied the house rent free for as long as he was employed at the pit. Some of the pit houses had a reasonable size garden and much of the land surrounding the pit village was used as allotments or kitchen gardens to grow vegetables. Colliery houses were often used as an incentive to induce men, especially those with large families of sons, to work for a coal owner at a particular mine. In 1883 Mr Patterson, Assistant Manager to the Marquess of Londonderry travelled to Hamilton in Scotland to recruit miners for Seaham Colliery because of the shortage of men in Seaham. The Hamilton miners were offered five shillings a day with free house and coal and their travel costs paid to Seaham Colliery.

Butcher Street, Seaham Colliery (Built c1850) - Photographed from the top of the pit heap

Courtesy of Madeline Eggleston

The nature of mining made the pitmen and their communities fairly distinct from other labouring classes and they were often regarded by outsiders as “clannish” although it could be said that the community were merely looking after the interests of their own families and workmates (Fowler, 1982). The daily routine of a pitman’s wife was very different from that of other women. Consider a common enough situation in a pitman’s family. The men in the household could be employed down the mine as a hewer, putter or a shiftman. Her eldest son could be working at the coal face as a hewer; her youngest son could be a putter pushing the tubs from the coal face to the landing and her husband could be a shiftman repairing the roadways. Each one worked a different shift pattern and went to work and returned home at different times. She had to ensure there was ample hot water for each of them to bathe after their shift; she had to mend and wash their clothes ready for the next shift and she had to prepare a hot meal for each of them before they went to bed. In addition she had to keep everything neat and tidy in the home as well as find time to feed herself and to sleep. Under ordinary circumstances she fed her family on good basic cooking. Considering the amount of physical exertion required down the mine a pitman’s wife had to make substantial meals for the menfolk. One of the favourite meals in a pitman’s house was suet pudding with beef and kidney filling, cooked in a basin covered with a clean cloth firmly tied and then boiled in a pan of water for three to four hours. That would be followed by a sweet suet pudding covered with treacle or spotted dick with sultanas and raisons. Often as a treat for supper she would prepare tripe and onions poached in milk. (Whellan, 1894)

As the population of Seaham Colliery expanded a new church was needed to fulfil the spiritual needs of the community as the existing parish church of St Marys was more than two miles away at Old Seaham. A new church called Christchurch was built and opened in 1857 across the road from the pit entrance to Seaton and Seaham Colliery. It was at first created as a chapelry of St Marys until the parish of “New Seaham” was created in 1861 and Christchurch became the parish church.

The countryside where once there were green fields and arable farmland was transformed from the 1850’s into a mighty industrial complex by the erection of pit-head buildings, lofty steam-engines, chimneys belching columns of smoke into the sky, noisy blacksmiths’ shops, wagon ways, grimy coal screens, slag heaps and row upon row of colliery houses bristling with miners going to or coming from their work at the pits.


Why the “Hell Fire” Pit

Temperatures down a pit can in places rise to 80 degrees Fahrenheit but that alone does not warrant the fearful name given by the newspapers and the Seaham Colliery miners to their workplace. The Hell Fire pit!

No – it was more than that. For thirty years since it first drew coal there were dreadful accidents. That was nothing unusual for coal mines in Victorian times. The wives and families of men working down the pit reluctantly accepted the day-to-day accidents that injured and maimed their husbands as another burden to bear and more hardship to overcome. But in addition came the terror of miners the world over – explosion. In less than thirty years since coal production began at the two collieries there were six horrific explosions that caused great injury and loss of life. The explosion record of Seaham Colliery can be summarised as follows:-

Early 1852 – Two explosions - No lives lost

16th June 1852 (Wednesday) – Explosion – 6 lives lost

6th April 1864 (Wednesday) – Explosion – 2 lives lost

25th October 1871 (Wednesday) – Explosion – 26 lives lost

8th September 1880 (Wednesday) – Explosion- 164 lives lost

Note: The newspapers initially reported an explosion at Seaham Colliery on 20th September 1872 with no loss of life. Upon investigation it was found that it was far less serious. Some paper and dust had ignited beside a shotfirer who had just completed two shots in a stone drift in Number 3 Pit. The fire was extinguished by another miner in close proximity and there was no explosion.

The causes of explosion in a coal mine can primarily be attributed to poor or defective ventilation; carelessness of workmen in using naked lights or shotfiring and the negligent management of the mine. The ignition of explosive gases has the effect of not only spreading destruction in the locality in which it occurs but it also extends its appalling effects to distant parts of the mine. The subject of pit explosions engaged the attention of both Houses of Parliament and the government was eventually induced to appoint four independent and able scientific men as Inspector of Coal Mines in 1850. By 1906 there were twelve Inspectors and twenty six Assistant Inspectors. Inspectors were mining experts with the power to inspect mines above and below ground for all matters related to safety and for compliance with appropriate legislation. They had to be notified of all fatal accidents and would gather various statistics. Inspection could be following an accident, on invitation or following a complaint from the miners. As the number of inspectors increased over the years routine, unplanned inspections began and they became the dominant part of their work.

Each inspector was responsible for a geographical region and produced a report for that region. The first four inspectors covered all of Great Britain between them, losing areas as further inspectors were appointed until by 1855 there were 12 regions or districts. The numbers of districts varied over the years between 6 and 12 (with additional ones for metalliferous mines from 1873-1901) as restructuring took place, or merging of districts was needed because of staff retirement or death. Mr Matthias Dunn was responsible for the Durham District in 1850 and he attended all cases of serious accidents and explosions in collieries in the Durham district.

The first five explosions at Seaham Colliery are covered in the next few chapters. The full story of the 1880 explosion will be covered in more detail from Chapter 8.


The poor trapper boy

The 1852 explosion

An unlucky co-incidence links all of the explosions at Seaton and Seaham Collieries. Every explosion happened on a Wednesday. On 16th June 1852 a dreadful explosion of fire-damp took place at Seaton Colliery. Although the pit had only been in production for five months it was being described as a fiery pit. Two explosions from fire-damp had already taken place although without loss of life. This time the men were not as fortunate. The explosion took place about noon and shortly afterwards several men volunteered their services and descended the pit. They found the pitmen and boys nearest to the shaft quite safe. They tried to explore further inbye but the afterdamp was so strong they could not go further and they returned to bank. Soon afterwards a second rescue party went down and were able to explore further. On reaching the location of a trap-door they found the body of ten year old trapper boy Charles Halliday. The door had been blown off its hinges and the poor boy had been thrown about thirty yards by the force of the explosion against a wall and was partly buried by a roof fall of stones. It transpired that the older brother of Charles Halliday had heard the explosion and ran past his poor brother’s body lying partly hidden under the fall of stone, dashed through thirty yards of fire-damp, and escaped unhurt. The exploring party progressed onward finding the body of a horse and then the body of William Simpson who was partially burnt. They then found the bodies of another four men who were not in the least burnt and who must have died from the effects of the afterdamp.

In total six miners were killed and several others were injured. The names of the deceased were: -

  • Charles Halliday aged 10

  • William Simpson aged 27

  • John Simpson aged 36

  • Andrew Simpson aged 18

  • John Defty aged 53

  • John Pratt aged 20

John Defty left a grieving widow and nine children. In early Victorian times colliery managers often came under pressure from miners to employ their children, both girls and boys with some as young as eight years old. After a serious accident at Huskar Colliery in 1838 in which the mine was flooded it was revealed that eleven girls aged from eight to sixteen and fifteen boys aged between nine and twelve had perished. The story of the accident appeared in London newspapers and Queen Victoria who read the reports put pressure on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to hold an enquiry into the working conditions in Britains’ factories and mines. The Children’s Employment Commission published its first report on mines in 1842 which legislated that females were banned from working in the mines and that no boys under the age of ten could work underground. Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry led the opposition to the Bill in the House of Lords and declared that some seams of coal required the employment of children and that certain pits could not afford to pay men to carry out such work and would close down. In 1872 the age of boys who could work in the mines was raised to twelve and then eventually to thirteen in 1903. Ten year old Charles Halliday was a trapper boy. His duties were to open and close a door which kept the air supply flowing in a particular direction for the men in that seam. Failure to close the door promptly and securely would result in a break in the ventilation process through the workings and the possibility of a build-up of fire-damp gases. It was an eerie job; all alone for ten hours with a faint flicker of light from a candle or lamp interspersed with putters pushing their coal tubs back and forth to the shaft. They were often subject to beatings from the putters if they fell asleep and did not open the doors promptly. Poor Charles Halliday’s hard and miserable existence was tragically cut short before he had a chance to experience any joy in his life. No childhood games in the street for Charles or running through fields with friends. Charles was buried on 19th June 1852 in the ancient church of St Mary’s at Seaham.

The Trapper Boy

The bodies of the six men and boys who died at midday in the explosion on that fearful Wednesday were brought to bank that afternoon. News of the explosion had spread all around the district and wives, children and families congregated waiting for news and it was said that the scene at the pithead was heart rendering. All of the survivors and several of the exploring party who were affected by the afterdamp were attended to by Mr Ward, surgeon of Seaham Harbour when they returned to the surface.

The inquest was held in the Mill Inn on 23rd June before the Coroner Mr TC Maynard. Mr Matthias Dunn the Government Inspector of Mines was in attendance in addition to Mr Morton the agent to the Earl of Durham and viewers and mining engineers from many other collieries in the region. Ralph Dunn a coal hewer gave evidence. He told the inquest that on the day of the explosion he was working with candles and blasting coal with powder in the first South-west drift. There was plenty of air ventilating his workplace which was about six feet wide. The explosion took place about 500 yards away. James Bruce, a Deputy Overman, stated he was working at the west side of the shaft and upon hearing the explosion went into the North side and then returned again. He passed the body of young Halliday and the bodies of the other men which were beyond the cross-cut. The body of Simpson was about fifty yards beyond the cross-cut and that of John Defty and John Pratt were about twenty yards further up. He found the second Simpson in the back-drift about two or three yards from the fall of stone. The third Simpson was found at the stention about sixty yards from his workplace. These men had been working with candles. No one had detected any gas or any sign of danger before the explosion and no gas was detected after the explosion. Two colliery viewers gave evidence to the inquest. Mr Forster and Mr George Elliott had both visited the pit the previous Monday. Mr Forster concluded after looking at the face of the drift that the coal in that quarter was tender and he had no doubt that as the coal was very soft that gas would escape very readily. Mr Elliott confirmed his opinion that the explosion happened in the back west drift and that they had found the candle at the end of the brattice about five feet from the coal face. The Coroner, Mr Maynard, heard evidence from a number of other men and from the management. He concluded that the explosion had occurred in the back-drift. It was probable that a “blower” of gas had been released through a fissure in the coal face and this had been ignited by the open flame from a candle causing the explosion. Mr Dunn, Inspector of Mines, was more direct in his summing up of the method of working. He added that although there was no indication of gas prior to the explosion and that everyone working in that district considered that the ventilation was adequate it would have been prudent if the management had issued Davy safety lamps to the men when powder was being used. He also agreed that the workings at the pit were still under development as production had only recently commenced. However, in his opinion an increase in the width of the drift from six feet to eight feet would improve the ventilation and the volume of air to the workplaces and would make much safer working places for the hewers and the shotfirers. The jury retired to consider the evidence and upon returning the Coroner announced their verdict that the explosion was “purely accidental”.

It is ironic that something good should come out of such a tragic event. The inquest held on 23rd June 1852 in the Mill Inn closed. The jury and reporters dispersed. Discussions of a most interesting nature then took place amongst the viewers and other scientific men who had attended the inquest. Amongst those present were Mr TE Forster, Mr TC Maynard, Mr GB Forster, Mr H Morton, George Elliott, Mr E Sinclair; Matthias Dunn the Inspector of Mines for the Durham Area and other mining engineers. It was during these discussions in the Mill Inn that the first suggestion was made to form a Mining Institute for the North of England and the title, regulations and the constitution of this new Association was settled that evening (Volume 15, Transactions of NEIME). These proposals were agreed at a subsequent meeting on 3rd July and then formally adopted at a meeting in the Coal Trade Office, Newcastle on 31st July 1852. Those present were concerned coal owners and mining engineers interested in the prevention of accidents in mines and the advancement of mining science. The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers was now formally created. At a further meeting of its 70 members held on 21st August 1852, Nicholas Wood was elected President; four Vice-Presidents and twelve Council members were elected. The object of the Institution was twofold – first, by the concentration of professional experience to devise measures which might avert or alleviate the dreadful calamities which had produced such destruction to life and property; and secondly, to establish a literary institution applicable to the theory, art and practice of mining.

The advancement of the science of mining would play an increasing role in working practices in the Durham mines and make a real impact on the safety of pitmen throughout Northumberland and Durham and it started in the Mill Inn, Seaham.

A blue plaque commemorates this momentous occasion above the door of the Mill Inn.


Two pits become one

The sinking of pit shafts was an expensive and risky business with no guarantee of a profitable outcome. The costs could range from tens of thousands of pounds to upwards of £80,000 if geological difficulties were encountered such as at Murton and Wearmouth collieries. As a consequence almost every colliery was built with one shaft - one way down and only one way out.

Both coal owners at Seaham - The Marchioness of Londonderry and the Hetton Coal Company - were aware of the accident at Page Bank Colliery on 1st October 1858 when the shaft caught fire and ten men and boys suffocated by inhaling the smoke fumes coming down the shaft. Discussions took place between the two coal owners about the potential for such an accident happening in the shaft at each of their pits. The Londonderry’s not only owned Seaham Colliery but were also shareholders in the Hetton Coal Company that owned Seaton Colliery. Agreement was reached on the purchase of Seaton Colliery by the Marchioness of Londonderry in August 1860 thereby uniting the ownership of both pits.

More shaft accidents happened soon afterwards. One of the most appalling and heartrending catastrophes that has ever occurred in Britain took place on 16th January 1862 in Hartley New Pit, near Seaton Delaval. Over the mouth of the pit was the beam of a pumping engine, the largest and most powerful in the North of England, the beam weighing about forty tons. The men were being drawn up in the cage by means of the winding machine when the beam of the engine broke and fell into the pit, meeting, in its downward course, the ascending cage carrying eight men to bank, the enormous mass crushing everything in its way. Five were killed instantly, and three were afterwards rescued alive. The beam struck the top of the brattice with such violence that the whole of the massive wooden and iron framework was hurled to the bottom of the mine, thus cutting off all means of escape from the lower portion of the mine, in which 204 men and boys gasped in the foul air until it was exhausted completely and they all perished (Fordyce, 1867).

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