• Andy Robson

The Haswell Pit Disaster of 1844

It is difficult to say exactly how many men, women and children were killed or maimed in British coal mines, but the better documented figures for the 19th and early 20th Centuries give an average of over 1,000 deaths each year. It was the steady chop-chop of everyday accidents that posed the greatest danger, but inevitably it was the large-scale disasters that grabbed the headlines.

The single biggest contribution to safety in coal mines, the safety lamp, ironically acted to make working conditions even worse for miners. Its use allowed pits to be sunk ever deeper – from a noteworthy depth of 600-ft before the lamp’s introduction, shafts were being sunk to well over 1,000-ft by the 1830’s. Deeper workings meant longer transit times to the faces – a big concern for men paid on piece-rates, while the task of ventilating the mines became ever more difficult. As a result, miners were usually forced to work in damp and stifling hot conditions, while poisonous or explosives gasses could sometimes not be cleared. In Northumberland and Durham, there were 58 pit accidents involving gas explosions between 1817 and 1841, which accounted for four-fifths of the 919 fatalities during that period.

The first shaft at Haswell Colliery was sunk in 1833 by the Haswell, Shotton & Easington Coal & Coke Co. but almost from the start the workings were placed under a cloud. The following year the Great Strike of the Northumberland and Durham coalfields led to the importation of large numbers of workers from outside the area. The result was widespread poverty, social divisions and harsh recriminations throughout the two Counties. Haswell became a ‘black-leg’ pit, with non-Union labour being employed and there was considerable friction with the locals. However, the first coal was brought up in July,1835 and very quickly the mine became one of the most productive in the area.

Having deep and extensive workings, Haswell was always subject to problems with ventilation and flooding. There were minor explosions on 16 June,1840 and 17 August,1841 that sounded the warning bell, but, as was common at the time, accidents were blamed on working practices not being followed and any inherent problems with the workings were quickly glossed over. Indeed, Haswell was considered noteworthy for the quality of its ventilation system.

By 1844 there were over 300 men and boys employed at Haswell, bringing up high-quality coal from two separate workings; the Big and Little Pits respectively. At 3-pm on Saturday, 28 September, a massive underground explosion tore through the Hutton Seam of the Little Pit. It was recorded that an unfortunate horse, its waggon, and some stacked tubs acted as a block to the explosion near the shaft and miraculously 4 men and 2 boys standing here survived the fireball. They later recalled seeing the flames tear down the underground tunnels towards them and all suffered burns and blast injuries. No less than 95 men and boys did not escape with their lives, however.

When rescuers were finally able to get down into the workings, they found that the ventilation system had been blown out by the explosion. ‘Only’ 14 of the casualties were believed to have been killed by the explosion, the rest being suffocated as the oxygen was burnt out of the air underground. A poignant picture was portrayed of about 20 of the men who were caught in the act of putting on their clothes at the Brockley Flat; workers usually stripped to a cut-down shirt and thigh-length shorts once underground because of the heat. It was considered that the men probably lived for at least a-quarter-of-an-hour following the explosion, and they were found huddled together as if trying to comfort each other.

Mass funerals took place on Monday the 30th and it was recorded that by Wednesday all the casualties had been buried. Most were interned at Haswell, Easington, South Hetton and Hall Garth, but 3 were removed to at Gateshead, 18-miles away, and one to Long Bretton, 25-miles distant.

An inquest was duly called and, unsurprisingly, returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ on Friday, 11 October with “no blame be attached to anyone”. Suggestions for improving the ventilation of the workings were dismissed as impracticable – too expensive in other words. A fund was raised for the relief of the widows and orphans and by January,1854 this amounted to £4,403, 2s. and 6d; equivalent to about £40 for each affected family.