On this day in history: 16th January 1862 – Two-hundred and four men and boys are killed in the Hartley Colliery disaster, Northumberland…. A mining disaster which prompts change in UK law….

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Hartley Colliery Disaster : the dead are brought up to their families – L’illustration 1862

At the time it was common practice for coal mines to have just one mineshaft – Hester Pit at the Hartley Colliery was one such mine….

The problem began when a support beam, for the steam engine being used to pump sea water from the pit, broke…. The pump was the largest in use in Northern England – it pumped 1,250 gallons of water per minute…. Its 20 ton section of support beam crashed down blocking the mineshaft…. Out of the 8 men coming up in the lift at the end of their shift, 5 were killed instantly…. A further 199 men and boys were trapped underground….

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Drawing of the mechanical failure which caused the Hartley Colliery disaster – Illustrated London News 1862 – Public domain

A massive rescue operation was immediately launched; workers rushed from neighbouring mines to help…. With the pump out of action the pit soon began to fill with poisonous gases and water….hampering the rescue attempt….

It took 6 days to eventually clear the debris and gain access to the mine…. For the first few days there were high hopes of a successful rescue but when the would-be rescuers finally got to the trapped men – all were dead…. Some had died from their injuries but most had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning…. The youngest was just 10-years-old, the oldest 71; sons lay in the arms of fathers and brothers in the arms of brothers…. One family alone lost nine of their menfolk….

Most of the victims were buried in the local cemetery at Earsdon…. The Duke of Northumberland gave up some of his adjoining land, as the churchyard was not big enough….

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Monument to the Hartley Pit Disaster in St. Alban’s Churchyard, Earsdon – Dposte46 own work – Public domain

Had the Hester Pit had two mineshaft no doubt many lives would have been saved…. An Act of Parliament was passed in August 1862, after a successful campaign to make two shafts compulsory – this was despite opposition from some greedy mine owners….

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