- The Hartley Colliery Disaster
The hartley Colliery disaster of 1862 shocked Britain out of its mid-century equipoise, ripping the veil from the dangers faced by the British coal miner. As George Orwell would point out more than seventy years after the disaster, factories, home heating, and cooking fires depended on an endless supply of coal, but that coal was alienated from the point of production, and especially from those who produced it (35). In the age of telegraphic journalism, the nation was involved in the Hartley disaster in an unusually intense way, following the story through anxious hope and eventual disappointment over the six days during which the fate of those trapped underground remained unknown. This involvement culminated in both a large relief fund for the families of those killed and a surprisingly quick legislative remedy intended to prevent future disasters of the same kind.
The Hartley Colliery, nine miles northeast of Newcastle, was prone to underground flooding. As a result, a forty-two-ton beam engine—the most powerful in England—had been installed to pump out water. The engine’s pumping spear and the cage that brought men in and out of the pit shared a single shaft, over which the beam of the engine towered. On 16 January 1862, during the underground shift change, the engine broke and collapsed. It fell into the pit, bringing along with it the pit’s wooden timbering and the brattice dividing the shaft. The falling beam crashed into the cage, which was bringing some of the men up from underground, thoroughly mangling it. The collision also sealed off the mine’s single shaft and blocked egress for over two hundred men and boys stranded underground: “at a single blow, escape, food, and air were simultaneously cut off” (“The Hartley Colliery Accident,” Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal 62). Ultimately, three men would be rescued from the cage, but they were the only survivors.
Over the next few days, the community at the Hartley pit bank kept vigil over the blocked coal pit. They were accompanied, virtually, by the nation, as journalists reported from the scene in detail, and, literally, by twenty thousand accident tourists who poured into the small mining community by train and swamped the Hastings Inn at Seaton Delaval (Bronstein 43). Newspaper correspondents’ descriptions plunged readers into sensory immediacy: the cold weather; the blank stares of the desperate relatives as they walked back and forth; the overcrowded inn, which was the only place in town catering for thousands of people; the sounds of slow progress underground. Great pots of tea and stretchers were prepared for the injured and weak men who everyone assumed would be coming to the surface. Rescue workers and newspaper readers alike were tantalized by reports of “jowling,” the crashing of sledgehammers on underground equipment, the traditional way that trapped miners telegraphed that they were alive (“The Hartley Catastrophe”). [End Page 9]
Piece by piece, the cage was disassembled; a crew of experienced pit-shaft sinkers was lowered into the pit with ropes, to dig by hand. They managed to remove the timbering that was blocking the shaft, only to have the loose walls of the shaft crumble onto them, forcing a stop to the excavation. Two days into the rescue operation, deadly gases from the mine sickened the diggers, and all work again stopped while ventilation was restored (“The Hartley Colliery Accident,” London Daily News). But when, on 22 January, rescuers finally broke through the debris, they found that all the men and boys they had hoped to save were gathered just beyond the obstruction, where they had died of asphyxiation while awaiting rescue (Jackson 24). The first rescuer pulled from the pit, a Mr. Humble, emerged from underground in tears: “Oh dear! Oh dear! So many of my fellow creatures killed! My canny fellows” (“Distressing”). Ultimately, 199 bodies were brought to the pit bank, one at a time, each name announced to onlookers, each decomposing body placed into a black coffin and sprinkled with chloride of lime. Sixty thousand people witnessed the funeral, standing not only along the railway line but also ankle-deep in the mud just...