All was well as we passed the Ballast Hill: a fairly recent landmark, built from almost twenty years of discharged ships’ ballast. This is predated by the nearby Halfway Tree - or Mid Oak - a giant and ancient maritime landmark, situated high on the Hebburn Fell ‘halfway’ between Newcastle and the open sea at South Shields.
We followed - but steered clear of - the Cockcrow Sands, which stretched almost the full length of Hebburn Shore; at places, pushing well into the river. A little further up the hill, lay a more active scene - the Hebburn Colliery; a dirty place by contrast to the fishing village and the farming community that surrounded it.
I watched, as some Rolleymen led empty coal tubs pulled by pit ponies, back up to the pit, while others led full wagons away from the pit, along the tracks down to the awaiting river keelmen at the Black Staith. These keelmen, constantly ferried the black heaps in their keelboats from the Tyne’s bank to the hungry colliers waiting mid-river; and the colliers in turn shipped it to several dozen ports - mainly London and the rest of England. As I watched, I drew the last piece of shag tobacco from my waistcoat pocket, rubbed it in the palm of my left hand and proceeded to fill and light my pipe. I puffed away for a minute or two with a meditative air, turned to Geordie, pursed my lips and then motioned my eyes towards the pit’s wooden headgear.
“You see that place over yonder - just beyond the Cockcrow sands?”
“Hebburn Colliery, Granddad, the coal-mining village? Yes, I know it well.”
“Yeah, Geordie, I know you do, sonna; but I must inform you that some of our Rigger relations that you’ve never met work there, on the south side of the river. They’re not close relations, but they’re family all the same… so never forget it.”
“I won’t, Granddad. Have you ever met them or spoken to them?”
“Alas. No, Geordie. I can’t give a reason why, but I do give generously to the miners’ widows’ welfare.” These poor mining families endure the most despicable hardships imaginable.
Geordie looked up at me anxiously and raised his brow. “Granddad, are you crying?”
“No, sonna,” I masked my emotions with my handkerchief, “it’s this heat; plus, I was up very late preparing for today’s journey. You run along and play with your tortoise; I’ll shout for you when we reach Tynemouth.”
“Thank you, Granddad.” Geordie skipped away to the cooler innards of the ship.
Even though the sun glowed in a clear blue sky, my mind was clouded with reflections of the fatal pit explosion that occurred at the mine only ten months past.
Since it opened in 1792, the pit, owned by Mr Wade, has been plagued by dreadful bad luck, especially to its denizen workers. Through neglect, greed and ignorance of the most elementary safety precautions, the mine is in a state of almost constant flood.
It was on the sixth of October, last year, when the ground heaved to a massive explosion down in the lower main seam.
The pit has three shafts: ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. ‘A’, situated at the top of the staiths, serves for the drawing of coals and for man riding. ‘B’, just in view on Black Lane, near the Shields Road, is used for pumping out water, and ‘C’, which is near the Halfway Tree, is used for the upcast of ventilation by means of a large fire blazing at the bottom of the shaft; the expansion of the hot air and gases makes it lighter than normal atmospheric air, so it quickly rises up the pit shaft causing a vacuum. The shaft would be previously partitioned off by means of heavy sackcloth known as brattish, forming a flu for the rising gases. The vacuum created by the rising heat, causes cold atmospheric air to descend, thereby ventilating the pit with a crude method of gravity-air exchange. Unfortunately, the rate of air exchanged could be quite insufficient to sweep out the noxious gases in quantities capable of keeping clear all of the pockets of methane and carbon monoxide, ensuring the safety of the miners who would be toiling in multi-dangerous conditions, such as were prevailing and tolerated with impunity.
The villagers live ‘on bank’ - that is anywhere above the pit head and around their little homes: white cottages, seemingly washed over in a coat of lime, in the ongoing war against ticks, fleas, bugs, smallpox or many of the other scourges of the times, which the people endure as best they can in the will to live. A hardy race of mining families, subdued by hunger and want - they are relics of the feudal system. Though still deferential to their betters, fingering their forelocks in esteemed reverence to the very people whom they knew cared nothing about them: the rich, who exploited them and unashamedly called themselves magnanimous against disease, unless the same circumstances were liable to come back to themselves. These were the people; they had wives and children on bank that waited for the pit hooter to sound ‘loose!’ Pronounced ‘lowse’: meaning another twelve-hour shift safely over for the men and lads working in the bowels of the earth. The feeling in the air seemed to say ‘what is wrong today?’ Some felt impending peril, but most went about their usual activities; they were quite used to the muck and stench of excreta and urine emanating from open lavatories, known as ‘netties’ or ‘bogs’, which they resembled. Such human waste is often covered with cold ashes from their fires; the midden men, conscripted by the authorities in the course of time, to move this unhealthy effluent, come on their collections by lamp-light; through the night, as the pong is really stupendous - to be tipped in some reasonable remote field; where the residual fluids would seep away northwards to the nearby river, and eastward down into the bogs and marshes in the lowlands of Jarrow. The pit hooter, or, as it was known then, the pit buzzer, started blowing long before lowse, ‘something’s wrong at the pit! I wonder what?’ People may have thought. The low rumble of the explosion could not very well be heard on bank; it could not be heard up at the Old Hall; it could not even be heard in the cottages by the river, but the buzzer kept on blowing in its urgency: ‘An accident in the pit! An explosion! My God! I hope the bairns are all right! Is it a big one? What seam is it in?’
Sunday was the day before payday. Pay was once every fortnight. Crowds collected; it was a massive explosion; the explosion was in the dreaded lower main seam. People clutching at metaphoric straws had little consolation that at least some of their kin might escape from higher seams.
The constant fight in the pit against flooding - which was often a possible source of cutting off air-supplies, therefore allowing gas to accumulate – was a hazard among the many, which were taken for granted in the struggle for coal and life itself.
Explosion is sudden; death is sudden; the sudden loss of kin is shocking.
The appalling strain of shock to the community on bank took its many forms - some tears of panic and hysteria, but, mostly evident was the subdued and solemn quietude of despair. I remember the feeling of loss was stupendous. While underground, there was a spontaneous, unceasing drive at rescue work, until the very last body was recovered. The exertions of the rescuers were continued without interruption, and it is inevitable that they too became casualties. Through the rush and extra energy exerted in the voluntary efforts to attempt to save life, the poisonous proliferation of gases following an explosion are enough to endanger the lives of rescuers very seriously. Blackdamp, as it is known, is extremely poisonous, and kills very quickly; so also, does it much more quickly snuff out a candle or the life of a small canary bird.
About seven o’clock on Sunday night, the mutilated remains of Thomas Telford, a youth, were brought to the surface - and at about nine o’clock, the bodies of two other men were brought up, but in such a dreadful mutilated state, that recognition was impossible. Sixteen of the bodies of the sufferers were found the following day, again, all sadly mutilated by the explosion.
Indeed, as before, many were so much disfigured that it was impossible to identify them. The bodies were placed in decent coffins, which were waiting to receive them when brought to the surface. One body thought to be that of my relative George Gibson, found on Monday, was, on Tuesday discovered to be that of Thomas Davidson - Cousin George having been found on Sunday afternoon. Davidson, who had been conveyed to my cousin George’s home, was, accordingly removed to his own couch. Cousin George was placed upon the now vacant couch. In several instances, the surviving friends and families had to mourn over a heap of mutilated remains, without having the melancholy satisfaction of knowing with certainty that they were with their own kindred.
By Wednesday morning, hope of finding any survivors was fading, when John Barthold was dug out of the debris of the mine in a shocking state of mutilation.
The excitement prevailing on Thursday was greater than at any previous period since the explosion. Alas, the unceasing drive at rescue work, and the attempt to recover every last body, was unfruitful. Seven bodies were never
found, though the twenty-eight recovered were conveyed to the grave in the Jarrow churchyard in carts belonging to the colliery - their obsequies being witnessed by upwards of three thousand spectators, many of whom had come from a considerable distance.
Some of the surviving relatives joined the melancholy processions, and as usual in the colliery districts in the north of England, the Old Hundredth Psalm was sung on the way to the burial ground.
The scene was exceedingly solemn, and many tears of sympathy were shed on that melancholy occasion. Twenty-five widows and eighty-one children were left unprovided for.
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