The Burradon Mining Disaster 1860
by Alan Fryer (1996)
- The Mining Community in 1860
- Social Background
- Burradon Colliery in 1860
- The "Daily Chronicle" and the Working Man
- "Appalling Accident at Burradon Colliery"
- The Relief and Defence Fund
- The Inquest
The sources used for this book are mostly contemporary reports of the disaster, published between February 26, 1860 and July 1860, in the following newspapers: the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, Newcastle Journal, Newcastle Courant, North and South Shields Gazette and The Times. Also consulted was Richard Fynes, The Miners of Northumberland and Durham, 1873; Maurice Milne, The Newspapers of Northumberland and Durham, 1971 and Frank Atkinson, The Great Northern Coalfield, 1966.
The source material was consulted in the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Central Library and the North Tyneside Central Library, North Shields and I would like to thank the staff of the local-studies sections in both places for their help and advice. I am deeply indebted to John Salmon, who has provided a large input at every stage of the preparation of this booklet, although I should point out that any views expressed are entirely my own. And finally, thanks also go to Geoff Civil for correcting the typescript.
At Burradon Colliery on the Tyne,
Near the great North Eastern Line,
Six miles from Newcastle town,
At two o'clock in the afternoon.
March the 2nd, that sad day,
The miners' regular fortnight's pay,
Eighteen hundred and sixty, then,
Upwards of three score and ten
Fell our fellow workmen brave,
Whom no human hand could save;
A dreadful catastrophe it was,
And no one living knows the cause.
Soon the news spread all around,
The pit had fired, underground,
When lo, a more affecting scene
In the North has never been.
George Cooke, A poem on the Burradon Pit Explosion, 1860.
"PROCRASTINATION IS NOT ONLY THE THIEF OF TIME, BUT THE MURDERER OF OPPORTUNITY." These words started an editorial comment by Baxter Langley, editor of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, on Saturday, March 3, 1860 - the day following the disaster. To procrastinate means to delay or put off an action. The action being referred to was the request made by the miners of Burradon and Seghill collieries, in the year prior to the disaster, to form a miners' provident association, whereby the miners would contribute 2d. per man, per week if the coal-owners would contribute 1d. per man each week, for the very purposes of the relief of sufferers in pit accidents. The coal-owners would not back the scheme. Was this procrastination or did the coal-owners ever have any intention of going along with the proposal? Baxter Langley was implying that although the coal-owners may, or may not, be responsible for the accident (and what we later knew to be seventy-six deaths) if the Miners' Provident Association had been funded the suffering of the families involved would have been lessened and the coal-owners' consciences may have been a lot clearer.
Burradon is a village about six-and-a-half miles north-north-east of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It was a very small agrarian community until the Industrial Revolution finally came, in 1820, with the development of a colliery. This was a small affair owned by Lord Ravensworth and partners - the "Grand Allies". They had a few major problems with this pit, so in 1837 a new shaft was sunk to a depth of eight hundred and seventy feet. In 1848 the colliery was sold to the Carr family, who owned many of the nearby collieries including Seghill, a neighbouring village. The Colliery was purchased on July 20, 1858 by Joshua Bower esquire of Leeds, although the Carrs still retained a part-financial interest. He was still the owner at the time of the disaster.
Burradon forms a community with its adjacent neighbour Camperdown, part of which was then known then as Hazlerigge. With the expansion of the Colliery, so the community expanded. Burradon and Camperdown are today only tiny dots on a map of Tyneside, hardly known by people only five miles away, the population being approximately 3500 persons. The community is mostly residential and no longer boasts of a coal mine - this ceased operating in 1975. The area has since been landscaped and no trace remains of the former colliery. The community in 1860 was even smaller than it is today, but Burradon would become well known throughout Britain, for a short time at least. There were in 1860 within the community approximately two hundred houses, mostly as part of a colliery row, and a population of about 1,100 persons.
There had been mining disasters greater than this one before - for example, Wallsend Colliery in 1835 where one hundred and two persons lost their lives - but the communications network had undergone a revolution in the period just prior to 1860 (with the development of the railways, the introduction of the electric telegraph and the repeal of the stamp duty on newspapers) so the news of the disaster was spread to the four corners of Britain within a day or two. Burradon's disaster attracted attention like no other disaster before. It probably paved the way for new legislation, and gained sympathy towards improving working-men's conditions, more than any other incident before - being two years prior to the Hartley Colliery disaster where a staggering two hundred and three persons were entombed when a beam from a pumping engine broke and completely blocked the shaft.
But before describing the events of that fateful day, and subsequent days, I will give a description of Burradon Colliery and its community. I will also set the social and political background to the disaster, analyse the way it affected local politics and examine the part played by the media in this affair.
THE MINING COMMUNITY IN 1860
At the beginning of the 19th century Burradon and Camperdown/Hazlerigge was an area of over six hundred acres, mostly land used for agriculture, although it did boast of a small freestone quarry employing a handful of men. The main highway through the two villages, on the Bedlington to Newcastle turnpike, had been laid down many years ago, but the farm and quarry were set away from this. Charles Brandling, the owner of the Camperdown lands, was an early inhabitant in Camperdown at the beginning of the ninteenth century. Burradon had twenty-nine inhabitants listed on the 1801 census - quarry workers and agricultural labourers.
The population increased very gradually, even on the sinking of the first pit in 1820, which was a small scale affair by modern-day standards. However, between 1830 and 1860 the population was to double in size.
The area was now beginning to look like a product of the Industrial Revolution. Waggonways (railways) criss-crossed the area carrying coals to the staithes on the Tyne and colliers' rows were erected by the coal-owners to accommodate their work force. Lane Row and West Row lined the main highway in Camperdown, built c. late 1820s. Burradon Pit Row was also built around this time, very close to the colliery and pit heap. These were extremely basic dwellings, being of only one-room-and-an-attic with no sanitation facilities. The main living area was very small. A miner's family was generally large; children as old as seventeen or eighteen may have had to share sleeping space with the younger children. Even contemporaries, such as newspaper reporters who visited the scene, were shocked by the conditions. Pit Row did not have a floor and the human waste in Lane Row was thrown against a nearby wall, where it may have laid for weeks, or even months, before the farmer came to take it away. The attic was reached by means of a ladder through a dangerous open hole. Office Row had recently been completed. This was described as starting at the pit-heap and being about three hundred yards long. Once again the housing was only of the one-room-and-an-attic type, but had a pantry attached and a garden at the front. The roof was made with slates - an improvement on the old-fashioned tile - but once again there were no "privies" or an ashpit to dispose of human excrement. Water had to be obtained from wells, of which there were about four within the community. Enteric complaints were rife as surface drainage often ran into these wells. The place must have smelled terrible!
On the southern side of the main highway in Camperdown commercial buildings had been erected to cater for the villagers' needs. Most notable were the public houses erected between c.1839 and 1853 - the Halfway House, the Collier Lad and the Grey Horse - which were probably built by the former colliery owners, the Carr family (to recover some of their money paid out to the work force; up until the 1840s it was not uncommon that wages were paid out in the pub). There were four general dealers in the community, a butcher and several blacksmiths.
The miners most often favoured Methodism as a religious preference, although they would have also attended the Anglican churches in Seghill, Longbenton and Earsdon. A Weslyan Methodist chapel, beside the Halfway House, had since 1830, as well as catering for the religious needs of the community, also functioned as a Sunday School. Methodism very much appealed to the working-class man - the Church of England was felt to be slightly unprincipled and attended by the well-to-do. Several of the miners in Burradon were at the fore-front of advancing the working-man's cause and the Methodist movement. Baxter Langley, editor of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, a central character in this affair who we met in the introduction, described these men as being some of the most intelligent in the country. He had come to know them personally and had given his newspaper's support to their cause. There was a wide variation between the workmen's attitudes ranging between the teetotal, enthusiastic Methodist and the men who often turned industrial action into a violent protest.
Improving the quality of lifestyle for the working-classes was a slow process in the industrial age. The Industrial Revolution, gaining impetus in the latter part of the 18th century, forced most of the working-classes to abandon their semi-independent status and become wage earners - previously, most had worked in agriculture and cottage industries. They had to endure long hours of hard labour, slum housing, insanitary conditions and often autocratic colliery and factory owners, although there were some notable exceptions to this. The working-classes had no vote in Parliament - therefore no effective voice. Parliament was mostly made up of the aristocracy; the middle-classes had only gained a junior partnership in Parliament with the 1832 Reform Act. Fortunately there were sympathisers with the working-class' cause, for instance, evangelicals because of their religious conscience. The ideology of laissez-faire that was prevalent in British politics in the early 19th century and the fact that the Government of the 1830s-40s was Whig - which factory-owners mostly allied with - meant the working-classes' cause was hampered.
But change there had been. In 1848, because of a cholera epidemic, which affected the upper-classes as well as the working-classes, a public health act was introduced, although it was only an advisory measure. It was not compulsory for local authorities to carry out its recommendations, they merely had the power to do so if they wished. The Public Health Act included measures to improve sanitation and water supply, but in most areas it was hardly ever implemented. Various factory Acts of Parliament were introduced and in 1842 a Mining Act (after only great efforts by a minority of philanthropists and evangelicals), but they were mostly aimed at improving children's conditions. Children, it was thought, could not effectively negotiate a workable contract with their employers (as if adults can) and needed the protection of law.
The working-classes did, of course, on occasions when totally in despair of their situation, fight back. This took the form of friendly societies, the Co-operative movement and combinations (which eventually became known as trade unions). These activities were repressed by the Government and the magistrates, who felt they were threat to the stability of society, especially in the period after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Acts of Parliament were introduced to limit the powers of combinations in 1824-25. The Six Acts, following the Peterloo massacre (1819) - where eleven persons peacefully attending a large public meeting were killed by the Manchester Yeomanry (Hussars) and army - limited the size of the public meetings, introduced measures to prosecute the writers of seditious material and introduced a tax on newspapers. The deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1837) - for an illegal oath-swearing ceremony at a branch meeting of Robert Owen's union - had the effect of curbing unionist activity for a while.
Even in 1860 the miners were harshly treated by the magistrates and employers. They could easily find themselves in jail for unionist activity, but often industrial disputes ended in disorder and even riot on the part of the miners. The magistrates felt that stiff punishment was needed to quell this threat to society (their society).
BURRADON COLLIERY IN 1860
Burradon Colliery had two shafts - an upcast and a downcast. These were 870 feet deep. Halfway down the upcast shaft a furnace was lit. This heated the air above it causing it to rise and attract a return current of air from the downcast shaft via the workings. Placed above the upcast shaft was a "donkey" engine which was used for pumping water from the pit. Propelled by a winding engine, cages ascended and descended the downcast shaft carrying coal tubs and men. The air current was directed into the parts of the workings where it was needed by either permanent stoppings or trapdoors. Stoppings would completely block off a branch and keep the air moving down the main airways. Trapdoors could have this effect, or more usually they would be used to divert the air sideways into the workings if they were placed on a main airway. The purpose of having trapdoors was to allow the passage of men, horses and coal tubs through; they would then be closed again to restore ventilation. A boy called a trapper, usually ten or eleven years of age, was employed to sit in the dark beside these trapdoors opening and closing them as necessary. The ventilation of collieries was necessary not only to give the work force a supply of fresh air, but also to evacuate the explosive gases which built up.
The miners, or hewers as they were known, would work outwards from the main airways digging into the cleavage of the coal. This working was called a board, which was four or five yards in width and a pillar in length (a pillar being variable). At the end of the length of the board the hewer would then dig at a ninety degree angle from where he had been digging, eventually meeting with another hewer's board. This left a pillar which supported the stone above. The size of the pillar, which could be square or oblong, was dependent on whether they were working under a rural or urban area, for risk of subsidence. John Buddle, a pioneering and well-respected viewer from Wallsend collieries, however, developed a way of obtaining 80-90% of the coal from these pillars. This was sometimes done after the main excavation had taken place and the area was called the broken. In Burradon Colliery, at the time of the disaster, there were three areas where the whole of the pillars had been extracted, usually in the shape of a large dome. This area was called the goaf and accumulated a large amount of gas.
When a boy reached the age of maybe twelve or thirteen he was often employed as a pony driver. The ponies, or small horses, pulled the rolleys along the underground rail tracks (rolleyways). The rolleys were a carriage to load coal tubs onto enabling them to be easily brought to bank (the surface). When a boy was slightly older he would generally become a putter. A putter's job was to load the hewed coal onto tubs, then make sure it was correctly labelled and brought to bank. He was assigned to one or two hewers, and like the hewer he was a piece worker, so if he slacked at his work it was not unknown for him to be given a "good hiding" by his hewer. Some boards were more productive than others and which hewer obtained which board was decided by drawing lots - a process known as a cavil. This process happened every three months, so for that period a hewer with an unproductive board would barely make enough to feed his family. In charge of the coal-face workers were supervisors known as deputies. They would supply the gunpowder needed, props to support the roof and would deal with any complaints or queries that were asked of them. Next in line of seniority were overmen, maybe four or five to a colliery, whose responsibility was the general safety within the pit and all manner of colliery management. The colliery manager, known as the underviewer, at this time, in 1860, was William Johnson. His superior was Charles Carr, the Viewer since July 1849. His task was to oversee the management of a number of collieries on behalf of the owners, maybe visiting Burradon Colliery once a week or fortnight. Also in the pit would be wastemen, generally older men, whose job it was to make sure everything was secure in the old workings (waste), e.g. propping up the roof. On the bank would be a brakesman, who operated the winding engine, and onsetters who unloaded the coal tubs from the cages.
We will now take an imaginary tour of Burradon Colliery workings as they were in 1860. From the bottom of the downcast shaft you would walk along the main airway for about five hundred yards. At this point you would have reached a dugout - the lamp cabin - where a man would supervise the handing out of equipment needed, including the Davy lamps. (The Davy lamp would not ignite gas, but was dimmer than a candle. Burradon was considered gas free enough in some parts of the colliery to allow the use of a naked flame.) Immediately after the lamp cabin the air splits. One split continues north, the other takes the air in an easterly direction. Taking the East turn, where the explosions occurred, you would travel up an incline, also of about five hundred yards in length. This incline was used to self-act the rolleys and had pulley wheels at the top. (Two rolleys were connected by a length of rope via the pulley wheel. The weight of a full tub, resting on a rolley, would cause it to descend the incline pulling the empty tub back up as it did so. The two tubs would then be respectively loaded and unloaded, and then the process would start all over again.) The airway then levels out. It would once again split, one airway going in a south-easterly direction the other continued easterly towards Seghill. Burradon Colliery had prior to 1858 been owned by the Carr family who also owned Seghill Colliery. These two collieries had been joined by an interconnecting door for ventilation purposes. The door had been blocked off on the sale of Burradon Colliery; the miners had thought this action weakened ventilation.
THE "DAILY CHRONICLE" AND THE WORKING MAN
The Daily Chronicle and Northern Counties Advertiser - to give the newspaper its full title - came into existence on May 1, 1858 as a sister paper to the Weekly Chronicle. The Chronicle's main rivals were the Newcastle (weekly) Journal and the Newcastle (weekly) Courant, both of which were Tory and reflected the views of their rich owners and middle-class editors; the Chronicle allied with the working man, an alliance that would strengthen over time. The repeal of the stamp duty on newspapers in 1855 had made a daily newspaper more feasible. The proprietors of the Chronicle, Lambert and Partners, did not feel they were up to the task of daily journalism, so they sold their interests, partly, then wholly, to Joseph Cowen Jnr. in 1859. Joseph Cowen Jnr. had been involved with newspapers since 1854. He was the son of Joseph Cowen, a Member of Parliament, and held strong political convictions himself. He was critical of the Government not only on issues relating to the working-classes, but on issues such as the handling of the Crimean War. He was a radical Liberal who supported foreign revolutionaries and also held republican views. His interest in acquiring the Chronicle was not just to spread his propaganda though, it was based on sound, commercial reasoning. The working-man formed the largest proportion of the population on Tyneside and despite their lack of formal education were not as illiterate as at may first be presumed - about 75% of manual workers were able to sign their names on the marriage registers at this time. They had not normally taken a newspaper up until the Chronicle's arrival - not liking the style or content of its predecessors and the papers being difficult to read in their dimly-lit home conditions. The Chronicle added sport to its pages, which appealed to the working-man, who would read it on Sundays - his day of rest. Other provincial newspaper editors complained to Cowen that by adding sport to his pages he was setting a bad example. He told them in no uncertain terms that the way he ran his newspaper was his own business. Cowen made the Chronicle the most successful newspaper in the North-East. He gave a great deal of space to the political and industrial aspirations of miners and engineers.
J. Baxter Langley, the editor of the Daily Chronicle, even before Cowen's total ownership of the newspaper had devoted a lot of space to working-men's aspirations. He had acquainted himself with with the miners of Burradon and surrounding areas and had been actively supportive in establishing a miners' provident association. The Chronicle and Langley were to play a leading role in the political events following the disaster.
The Miners' Provident Association was an idea which gained an impetus during 1859. The function of the Association was to provide a fund for the relief of sufferers in colliery accidents. The colliery workers would provide to the fund 2d. per man every week if the colliery owners would also contribute 1d. per man. On Whit-Monday 1859 (a day when the sun shone brightly) the miners of Burradon Colliery held a tea party in a field belonging to William Younger, the farmer of Burradon's lands. A large tent was engaged for the occasion. Many hundreds of people attended and Baxter Langley addressed the crowd on the necessity of establishing the Miners' Provident Association. He claimed that he was not a fortune teller, but just from past experience he had no doubt that some of the men before him might have come to an untimely end before twelve months had expired. He was unfortunately proved correct. A deputation of the men had waited for their masters in the summer of 1859 to explain their proposals for the Miners' Provident Association. A meeting was held in the Coal Trade offices, but the Coal Trade, after at first seeming to give the proposals their fair attention, were largely disinterested. The Miners` Provident Association, at this time, existed in name only. Many of the leading figures of the Association died in the disaster: William Urwin, the secretary; George Maddox and William Alderson, amongst others. Baxter Langley had come to know these men personally and had a deep respect for them. He had visited the colliery, been taken underground, and was introduced to the workers. In the article he wrote about the experience he said: "We talked of politics and social economics [in a way] which would have astonished Lord Shaftesbury and the Conservative members of the Coal Trade". He wrote with true compassion when in his editorial of Saturday, March 3, 1860, he stated: "We speak with a complete knowledge of the men employed in the Burradon pit when we say that, for integrity, generosity and general intelligence, we have never met with their superiors among any class of working-men".
"APPALLING ACCIDENT AT BURRADON COLLIERY"
The amount of explosives gases in the pit had given the miners cause for concern for several months prior to the disaster. A few of the men had complained to their superiors; in fact, the deputies had voluntarily evacuated the men from the pit on one occasion, but the workmen's protests were largely ignored. John Carr and William Dryden had been the most vocal of protesters and to a lesser extent George Maddox. On January 30, 1860 Dryden had been at work hewing, for about two hours, when he stopped for a drink. He noticed his candle was burning with a large blue flame - a sure sign of the presence of gas. He went to John Carr's board. Carr's candle was also burning in the same manner. Carr, immediately on seeing his candle, said, "Oh haw way hame". Dryden replied, "I am going". On reaching the bank the overlooker, Tyndall, asked them what was the matter. Dryden told him, "There will be a misfortune at Burradon pit as sure as I am a living man.... If it doesn't happen now it will happen and not be long". He added, "I would beg my bread before I go down that pit again". Dryden was dismissed and went to work at West Moor Colliery; his brother died in the explosion.
The weather in the Newcastle district had been dreadful in the week leading up to the disaster. The Daily Chronicle on Tuesday, February 26, 1860 reported a hurricane in the area that had caused considerable damage. The hurricane was likely to affect the pressure and therefore the ventilation of the pit. However, Walter Nicholson, the fore-Overman, descended the pit at 1:00a.m. on Friday, March 2, 1860 to inspect the workings, as was the normal procedure. He started his inspection in the far east workings, where he visited the board of William Williams, who would commence work there at 2:00a.m. Nicholson found everything to be safe and satisfactory. He stayed in the pit until 9:00a.m. having checked all the workings. Williams also left the pit at this time to be replaced at his board by George Maddox. Upwards of one hundred and twenty men and boys descended the pit that morning to start their shift. One of the men was John Carr, who had been off work several weeks ill, but also fearful of the pit's condition. On that morning he told his wife that he did not intend going down the pit. When she enquired as to how he intended earning a living, he said, "Lay the pit claes out, I'll go to work and we'll all be blown to -- together". He died in the explosion. Also descending the pit were James Brown, Matthew Cleghorn and Robert Cleghorn, who had just been transferred from Hartley Colliery. This was their first time in the pit. Robert Leatham was also starting work in the pit for the first time that day.
George Allan, 18, along with his younger brother, Robert, and Thomas Maddox were working in the broken to the south of the incline - a gaseous part of the pit where safety lamps were used. At about 2:30p.m. they heard a rushing of air, felt their ears pop and observed small coal flying away from the broken. The horses in the vicinity started squealing, moving erratically backwards and forwards, or they would lie down. The pit, they concluded, had fired somewhere near to them, but it was not an enormous explosion. It was sufficient, however, to cause them alarm and make them run out. The afterdamp (a suffocating gas left residual after the ignition of firedamp) was almost overpowering; they had to cover their mouths with their caps until they reached the top of the incline where the air quality was better.
Joseph Blair had been driving waggons on the main rolleyway about four hundred yards from where George Maddox was working. When the explosion occurred he noticed the air current change direction, then suddenly dust came towards him. Horses and props were blown away. Blair ran away as fast as he possibly could, observing fire running along the top of the mine. Halfway down the incline he met the Overman, William Alderson, who had some of the other workers with him. He tried to hold them all back with a stick and said, "Come me lads, gan back, she's all right now". Blair and Thomas Copplethwaite at first hid behind a tub, then they ran to the bottom of the shaft as hard as they could.
Alderson and his group carried on further in-bye until they reached the top of the incline where they met the Allans and Thomas Maddox. Alderson spoke to them, saying, "Lads it's no use going any further all the harm that can, 's been done now". The Allans and Maddox kept on running out-bye. William Donnelly ran about halfway with them, then stopped. They waited, but he did not speak so they carried on.
William Urwin, 14, was working in the first broken past the top of the incline with Benjamin Nicholson. On hearing the first explosion Nicholson shouted, "She's fired"! Urwin immediately ran away to the bottom of the shaft, passing Alderson as he went. Alderson also tried to persuade Urwin to return, but in vain.
Blair and Copplethwaite had, amongst others, reached the bottom of the shaft where they tried to attract the attention of the onsetters, Thomas Gascoigne and Thomas Mather, on the surface. The onsetters had not yet realized that an accident had occurred so they did not bring them to bank. But soon afterwards they noticed a change in pressure from the shafts. One of the onsetters went to seek William Kirkley from the Colliery offices. Kirkley was an overman of the Colliery who was busily engaged in putting up the wages. He immediately descended the pit where he was met by the boys assembled at the bottom of the shaft. Kirkley proceeded with the boys, including Blair, Zachariah Beadlen and Copplethwaite, to go about one hundred yards into the pit. He met William Urwin at this point, who was trying to run to the shaft; Kirkley held him by the collar.
About fifteen or twenty minutes had now elapsed since the explosion. The Allans had by this time reached the lamp cabin. Thomas Maddox had taken George Allan's lamp from him at the bottom of the incline, as his had blown out, with the intention of turning back to search for his brother. Allan tried to persuade Maddox to come out of the pit, but in vain. At the lamp cabin the Allans met the two horsekeepers who asked them what was the problem. George Allan explained that the pit had fired. The horsekeepers went to check on the horses opposite the lamp cabin, and the Allans had just started to make their way to the shaft, when a massive explosion occurred. Debris blew out towards the shaft; the Davy lamps were extinguished; bratticing fell all around the men and boys, who were knocked against the sides of the mine and horses squealed as they were blown over. Allan was struck on the side of the face in a violent manner by a large stone, but was able to recover sufficiently to help the boys around him escape. He soon met with Kirkley (William Urwin had managed to escape his clutches) who also ensured the boys got to the cage and safety. Kirkley took Blair, Copplethwaite and Beadlen in his care and got them to the shaft; they had to clear a certain amount of debris that was in their path before they got there though. Kirkley, along with the Allens, John Foster, John Nicholson, Robert Thompson and William Gascoigne, then proceeded back into the pit. They were met by the men coming out of the north workings, via the long way, all of whom escaped mostly without injury, although William Fryer was knocked down twice and one of the Beadlens suffered slight concussion. Kirkley and his group were not able to stay in the pit too long; Kirkley had to be carried out almost insensible from the effects of afterdamp.
The force of the second explosion had been felt on the surface. One of the onsetters ran to the neighbouring cottages and alerted the residents. Soon there was a sizeable crowd gathered around the pit-head. Men descended the pit to try and rescue survivors. Two of the first were wastemen of the Colliery, Thomas Fryer and Robert Jefferson, who had sons in the pit. They entered the workings through swing doors just past the lamp cabin, but they only got three hundred yards into the workings before suffocating on afterdamp. Other rescuers managed to get to the top of the incline where they found lamps, machinery and clothes scattered all around them. They also found the first body, that of John Beadlen.
Thomas Maddox Snr. was in bed sleeping off the effects of the previous shift when he was awakened with the news of the disaster. He rushed to the pit-head and anguishedly enquired of his various family members from George Allen who had just been brought out of the pit. Allen was unable to tell him - whether this was because he was insensible from the effects of afterdamp or he did not want to be the bearer of the dreadful news that he was only too aware of was not stated.
Other bodies were now being discovered and brought to bank. They were each wrapped in a blanket, which was tied by a cord. Two men accompanied each body. On reaching the surface the bodies were identified and the names given to the assembled crowd in a low tone. The Colliery carpenter's shop was temporarily used to keep the corpses until they could be taken to their respective homes. By late afternoon the news had spread further afield. Charles Carr (Viewer), Mr. Johnston (Underviewer), Matthias Dunn (Government Inspector of Mines), John Fryer (Viewer of Seghill Colliery) and other viewers from neighbouring collieries rushed to the scene to supervise the rescue efforts. The Daily Chronicle had also been made aware of the disaster and a reporter was duly dispatched. However, Baxter Langley also received a letter at 6:30p.m. that evening which read:
"Dear Friend - We wish you to come and see this terrible affair. Camperdown pit (Burradon) has exploded and it is such an occurrence as has not taken place for many years in our district. No less than 50 men (some say 80 or more) are lost. It is only right that someone belonging to the press should be here. In fact no one can describe it without seeing it. Our worthy friends, Maddox, Urwin &c. &c., are no more.
While writing 10 or 11 only are found (all dead of course). Oh Mr. Langley, to see the heart-rending sight would un-nerve the strongest. Surely something ought to be done."
By 8:00p.m., when the Chronicle reporter departed from the scene of the tragedy, about fifteen bodies had been brought out, but three were still unidentified due to their dreadful injuries. Mix-ups in identification occurred throughout the rescue process - corpses being taken to the wrong house, only to be later claimed by the correct relatives, which only added to the widows' grief. Contemporaries described the scene as one of melancholy. Almost every household suffered some loss. When the Chronicle reporter left Camperdown that evening he witnessed scenes of mothers weeping and wailing openly in the streets and the sound of wailing emanating from the open cottage doors, which was extremely distressing to the observer.
The rescue efforts were concentrated around the area at the top of the incline where Alderson and his group were found, including: Moses Thompson, Matthew Cleghorn, Robert Coulson, Thomas Marshall, John Marshall, Matthew Hepplewhite, James Maddox, John Maddox and Thomas Wilkie; a brother of Thomas Dawson was also found with this group, alive, if only barely. Sixteen bodies in total had been recovered by the end of the day.
By noon on Saturday, March 3, twenty-five bodies had been brought to bank, the search having been extended to the southern part of the east workings. Thomas Thompson was found in this district. He was badly burnt around the face and body; his clothes were scorched off him. Water was being copiously poured down the shaft to improve ventilation.
At 1:00p.m. on the Saturday, at about three hundred yards beyond the top of the incline, a breakthrough in the recovery efforts was made. After great efforts to shift debris, twenty-five persons were found. These had tried to make their way out-bye after the first explosion, but their escape route had been blocked by debris. Thirteen of them were found hand in hand. Some were found huddled together in a capsized tub and two boys were found opposite each other in a crouched position with a dead mouse between them. All of the twenty-five had died by suffocating on afterdamp and displayed all the characteristics of this death - a pale blue bloated face. By late evening about fifty-six corpses in total had been brought to the surface. The Viewer of Seghill Colliery, John Fryer, had opened the door between Burradon and Seghill collieries to aid in the recovery of bodies in that district. George Maddox was recovered at the board of John Carr, the two of them being huddled together. Maddox's back was badly burnt.
Sunday was to be a day of great activity, although only one or two bodies were recovered. An enormous crowd gathered on the pit-heap - this being the day of rest, of course. Both the Daily Chronicle and the Shields Gazette thought the crowd to have been maybe 25,000 strong. The Shields Gazette was very critical of the crowd, some of whom had taken picnics, reporting their behaviour to be not very befitting for such a sombre occasion. The Chronicle reporter said that they were just satisfying their "morbid curiosity". The public houses within the community were full to bursting point. A meeting of mineworkers' delegates from the neighbouring collieries was held in the Halfway house pub at 2:00p.m. to decide how best to help the bereaved. A vote of thanks was given to Baxter Langley, who was witnessing the scene for himself that day. In fact, along with Richard Fynes (a former colliery worker from Cramlington who was a tireless campaigner on behalf of the miners and later an author on the subject of North-East mining) was addressing the multitudes gathered on the pit heap asking them for donations to the relief fund. Langley was also taken underground where he witnessed a very different scene from the one he experienced the last time he visited the Colliery. This time he was not given a friendly greeting as he was handed a lamp at the cabin, only a silent and sombre face met his. He described a scene of utter chaos, with clothing and debris being strewn all around and the stench of decaying flesh being at times overpowering.
Also on Sunday began the internment of some of the bodies at Longbenton, Earsdon and Seghill churchyards. Some were taken in hearses, but most by horse and cart. They were sent on their way with hymns and prayers. The Weslyan Methodist church was also the scene of much activity on this day.
On Monday, March 5, what seemed like a continuous funeral procession took place. A large crowd of between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended at Longbenton church. They acted with great dignity, wearing the correct black attire and "Sunday best". At 1:50a.m. on this day the bodies of Thomas Fryer and Robert Jefferson were brought to the surface, having been found looking peaceful. William Turner, John Addy, George Whipps, James Vought and James Brown had been brought out by the evening.
On Tuesday morning the searchers found the remains of Benjamin Nicholson at the head of the twelfth pillar in the middle-south. This they concluded must be close to the source of the second explosion as Nicholson had been torn to pieces by the force of the eruption. His scattered remains had to be picked up on a shovel. He was completely unrecognizable and could only be identified by a peculiar mark on his cap. Nine more bodies were also recovered on this day, namely: Robert Kyle, Andrew Messmer, Joseph Musgrove, James Hamer, Frank Smith, David Addy and his son David, Ralph Heron and John Fittes. Three bodies were still so far undiscovered: Robert Leatham, William Wilkie and Thomas Wilkinson. The whole of the pit with the exception of the area surrounding the little goaf had been explored. Heavy falls of stone in this area had made recovery attempts difficult. The rescuers were busily engaged in constructing a complicated roadway in this section of the pit. The men recovered on Tuesday were found huddled together in the main airway. They had not suffered much charring, therefore it can be presumed the cause of death was suffocation by afterdamp. The clothes that they had discarded while working were found in piles where they had been left. Another large funeral procession also took place on this day, as well as the disposal of the horses killed in the disaster. About half of the horses, which were, of course, valuable animals, were killed in the disaster.
On Wednesday it was considered safe to light the furnace at the bottom of the upcast shaft to restore ventilation. The Colliery was put back to work and a shift was sent down at 8:00p.m. (even though there were three bodies still missing).
The excitement in Burradon now died down and the community began to slowly come to terms with their situation. The media did not let the euphoria subside, however. Every word spoken at the inquest was reported; letters to the editor occupied a large amount of space in the columns of the newspapers and every word uttered by someone connected with the incident was printed. During the week of March 3-10, an overman of the Colliery had told a Chronicle reporter that he had never heard any of the men express concern as to the state of the pit in the weeks leading up to the disaster; the owners also stated an interest in having a full and fair investigation as to the cause of the accident. Both of these statements were, of course, published, which, as we shall see in a later chapter, would no doubt be regretted by the interviewees at a later date.
On Tuesday, March 20, 1860, the Bishop of Durham visited the community. He was greeted by the Viewer, Charles Carr, and stayed for over two hours. He visited the sick and bereaved in their cottages. Also on this day the last body, that of Thomas Wilkinson, was recovered. He was found beside one of the temporary stoppings on the straight-up flat (a continuation of the incline). The body was slightly scorched, but was found in a reclining position with his head in his arms indicating a death by suffocation. Wilkinson was interred at Longbenton churchyard the following day.
THE RELIEF AND DEFENCE FUND
Seventy-six wage earners had been claimed by the disaster leaving many widows totally without any kind of financial support for the future. Who was to provide the security needed to stop the widows and orphans from ending up in a workhouse? The Colliery owner, Joseph Bower, had immediately offered £400 for relief purposes as well as paying the funeral expenses, but this sum of money would not compensate for the underground worker's average salary of about £31 per annum for very long. A coroner's enquiry was, of course, to be held, but even if negligence on the part of the Colliery's management was found to be the case, in the 1860s employees' rights were not recognised as they are today; therefore it was unlikely that any, or the necessary amount of compensation, would be awarded to the sufferers. The public realized this and were to be generous in their giving of financial aid.
The Newcastle newspapers collected money from donators at their offices, giving space within their pages to print a list of the largest contributions made, including one of £25 from Lord Ravensworth. Baxter Langley made a passionate appeal for aid in the Daily Chronicle of Saturday, March 3. He wrote, "No long letters expressing deep condolence (this is understood).... It is an earnest and heartfelt prayer that we may not make this appeal in vain".
Baxter Langley visited Burradon the next day, but deliberately stayed away from the meeting of mineworkers' delegates from nearby collieries held in the Halfway House, Camperdown at 2:00p.m. The meeting at first expressed sympathy towards the sufferers, then a vote of thanks was given to Langley for his help. It was then proposed that Langley be approached to form a committee with the purpose of collecting funds to be distributed amongst the sufferers. Joseph Cowen and Baxter Langley were to be requested to act as joint treasurers of the fund. A resolution was then put forward, and was carried unanimously, that the Mayor of Newcastle be approached to hold a meeting in the Guildhall with an intention of organizing the relief fund. It was to be attended by the Mayor himself, the Chairman of the Coal Trade and delegates from this meeting.
Baxter Langley made another appeal in the Daily Chronicle of Monday, March 5, and a suggestion as to how the funds should be distributed. He wrote:
"Following the blackened and distorted remains to the miner's home reveals another scene less painful perhaps at the moment, but fraught with distressing fears for the future of old men and women and little helpless children. Empty regrets without Christian sympathizing action is mere hypocrisy. The payments ought to be made as public compensations than as charity involving a deep sense of obligation on the part of the recipients."
He suggested a scheme whereby an annuity could be bought and distributed as was needed to return the sufferers to the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. An enquiry would be held to determine how much would be needed by each individual. Langley stated that this would be agreeable to the workers as they had commended the suggestion at their meeting of the previous day.
The Daily Chronicle printed lists of the various meetings of manual workers held to raise money for the sufferers, and they were numerous, such as a meeting of the mineworkers of Cowpen Colliery held in the Long Room of the Grey Horse pub on Wednesday, March 7. The churches in the area all held special services to offer prayers for the bereaved, including a service in the Methodist chapel at Camperdown on Sunday, March 11, given by the Rev. Tumbleton, where he gave special praise to George Maddox, the Sunday School teacher, "worker, father and christian". These meetings and services were still taking place several weeks after the disaster. Many letters were also received by Baxter Langley agreeing with his proposals. However, the working man would be largely denied a participation in their own welfare arrangements.
The Tory Newcastle Journal reported on a special meeting of the Coal Trade held in Newcastle on Tuesday, March 6. Resolution II of this meeting was that £1000 would be donated by the Committee of the Coal Trade. Resolution III suggested that the distribution of this fund should be vested in a committee compromising of the owners and management of Burradon Colliery. The Journal approved of these suggestions.
The Mayor of Newcastle held a public meeting on Saturday, March 10, as requested by the delegation of mineworkers. It was an extremely well attended meeting, not just of mineworkers, but also some of the most influential figures in the county. After the Mayor had stated the purpose of the meeting and the Bishop of Durham had offered sympathy towards the bereaved, Lord Ravensworth, the former owner of Burradon Colliery, moved a resolution that a public subscription scheme should be opened to alleviate the destitution of the sufferers. The High Sheriff of Northumberland seconded this motion. Mr. Hugh Lee Pattinson, of Felling Chemical Works, then rose to his feet. Pattinson had been contacted by Thomas Messer, a Burradon miner who had lost a brother in the disaster. Pattinson stated that pit accidents are avoidable, after all Sir. Humphrey Davy had invented the safety lamp some years ago, therefore the onus should not fall on the public to compensate the victims, but on the coal-owners. He was cheered for his comments. There was then much debate on the subject. The Mayor said that because an investigation was proceeding, the meeting should not pre-judge the jury's decision as to which party was responsible. James Mather, who was experienced in investigating mining accidents, later spoke. He did not disagree with Pattinson's views, but thought "there should be some opportunity offered the community of displaying their sympathy, and knew no means of doing it so well as through the medium of the pocket". A vote was taken and it was decided to form a general committee to oversee the raising of funds. The committee was mostly made up of coal-owners, landowners, and viewers. There was, however, George Fenwick of Lambton's bank, to act as the treasurer; J.B. Langley, Joseph Cowen and pitmen Thomas Messer, Thomas Weatherley and Robert Green.
A meeting of this committee was called for and duly held on Wednesday, March 10. A large crowd once again attended. It was decided to vote in a sub-committee of seven members to enquire into the condition of the various persons left destitute by the disaster and to arrange some short-term relief. The sub-committee, or Executive Committee, consisted of: T.E. Forster, Edward Potter, John Taylor, Thomas Taylor, J.J. Hunter, Henry Taylor and for the pitmen, Thomas Weatherley. Baxter Langley was not voted on to the Executive Committee, even though the miners had expressly requested that he should be; the reason given was that he did not have any connection with the coal trade. Only Weatherley had any acquaintance with the bereaved. It was stated at this meeting that a man, posing as an overman of Burradon Colliery, had been fraudulently collecting money on behalf of the sufferers.
The normally tactful and subtle Baxter Langley was obviously not pleased with the outcome of this meeting. He wrote: "Our readers will judge the fitness of these gentlemen who thus import offensive personalities into a charitable pursuit to disburse the funds which a generous public has subscribed". (Weekly Chronicle, March 17, 1860.)
Immediately after this meeting had adjourned a meeting of mineworkers' delegates was held in the Victoria Hall, Grey Street, Newcastle. After the chairman, Mr. Turnbull from Blyth, had opened the meeting, Baxter Langley was the first to address the delegates. He said: "The first point is obviously to raise subscriptions for the sufferers, but also to bring up once again what was mentioned in the Guildhall, namely raising a fund for the pitmen for a fair trial to be heard". Langley had spoken to the Coroner who had said that he would hold the trial where and when he chose and would not accept any cross-examination from either Langley or Matthias Dunn, otherwise they would be jailed. Baxter Langley wrote to the Home Secretary on the matter, as did Matthias Dunn and the editor of The Times newspaper - via several M.P. acquaintances. (The Times did, in fact, reprint several of Langley's editorials within its reports of the disaster.) The Home Secretary wrote to the Coroner and in the strongest possible terms reminded him of his duty, which was to conduct a fair and proper trial. Concern was voiced at the meeting as to the Executive Committee voted in at the Guildhall - the fact being that there was little representation of the vast majority of people who had donated money, namely the workers. The meeting broke up after having agreed to gather again in two weeks' time.
On Wednesday, March 28, another meeting of the General Committee was held in the Guildhall. Mr. Daglish, the secretary to the Committee, informed the other members that representatives from the delegates' meeting, Gelley, Kirkup and Coxon, wished to present a "memorial" (sic) to the Committee. The memorial stated that the workmen wanted Joseph Cowen, Baxter Langley and James Mather placed on the Executive Committee as they were known and trusted by the workmen. Mather, however, had sent a letter to Daglish stating his present commitments - namely his investigation of Burradon pit to produce a report for the inquest - would not allow him to join the Committee. The delegation was then asked to retire while the proposal was discussed. Langley and Cowen were purposefully absent from this meeting. The whole of the Committee, with the exception of Green and Messer felt that the current level of seven members on the Executive Committee was sufficient.
The Executive Committee had by this time visited Burradon and distributed some short-term relief. The seventy-six killed would have collectively earned about ú45 per week. The needs of the sufferers had been assessed and would be re-examined at regular intervals to enquire as to their current needs - taking into consideration children reaching employable age, remarriage, or claimants starting up their own businesses. The Committee had also done some relevant research on other colliery disasters. One such disaster was at the Oaks Colliery, Barnsley where in 1847 seventy-three persons were killed. £1,952 had been raised for relief purposes. The widows received three shillings per week and one shilling six pence per child. After ten years £605 was still left in the fund.
The working men were angry at the decision not to allow Langley and Cowen onto the Executive Committee. They were still sending relief contributions to Langley, which angered their employers. This letter to Langley, which was one of many on the subject, was published in the Daily Chronicle on March 30, 1860:
Sir, - The pressure exerted upon us working men to induce us to send our humble subscriptions to a committee in whom we have no confidence is almost more than we can bear. I have narrowly escaped losing my situation because I ventured to vote in favour of sending the money collected in our establishment to be distributed by the zeal and generous friends of the sufferers, Mr. Joseph Cowen and yourself. So great is the fear of consequences owing to threats which have been held out in the factory that the men have determined not to make a public subscription at all, but to send you their small contributions privately. Please to leave out my name and place where I work, but these statements are true: more's the pity. - I am Sir, yours obediently, A MECHANIC.
[A deputation from one of the factories, and several individual working men from other places, waited upon us yesterday and made several statements to those contained in the above letter. - Ed. D.C.]
Baxter Langley had two days prior to publishing the above letter made an appeal in his newspaper for donations to the Defence Fund which would enable the miners to afford a fair hearing. Sergeant Ballantyne, a barrister from London, had already been engaged to represent the miners at the Coroner's inquest. The Mayors of Gateshead and North Shields had both given ú10 to inaugurate this fund.
By April 7, 1860 £1,379 4s. 3 1/2d. in subscriptions and £434 19s. 4 1/2d. in cash had been raised. £520 11s. 5d. of this money had been deposited at newspaper offices before the General Committee had come into existence. Baxter Langley had also been given £305 5s. 3d. to be distributed by himself and not the General Committee. The situation had obviously become confused and counter-productive. Baxter Langley and Joseph Cowen felt compelled to issue a statement through the columns of the Weekly Chronicle on April 7, "to the subscribers of the relief fund specially voted to their hands". Langley and Cowen stated that they were "grateful for the honour and trust placed in them" and they would have "life long thanks", but they felt rather than have workmen risk losing their jobs all donations should now be sent to the General Committee. It would, of course, be more than some working men could bear, but Langley pleaded that every shilling counted for the sufferers. Langley and Cowen assured their readers that the money so far placed in their care would be distributed as best as they knew how.
Thomas Weatherley carried out the task of relief distribution for many years after the disaster. Some of the cash raised was used to build a school, which was erected in 1861.
(On September 30, 1884 the Shields Daily News carried an article stating that the Burradon fund was almost exhausted and a concert was held in the Colliery rooms to raise money on behalf of the seven remaining widows. The manager of the Colliery chaired the event, locals gave recitations and songs, and Edward Urwin played the piano.)
The Coroner for the Northumberland Division, Stephen Reed, was informed of the disaster and proceeded to Burradon. He opened an inquest at the Colliery offices on the Saturday evening of March 3, and swore in a respectable jury. The purpose of this first meeting was to make out a warrant for the internment of the bodies brought out of the pit up until that point in time. He adjourned the inquest until the following Friday. The Coroner opened a similar enquiry on Monday, March 5, to investigate the causes of death on the bodies brought out of the pit since Saturday. Overman, William Kirkley, was the first witness examined this day. He said that he had inspected the workings between 1:00a.m. and 8:00a.m. He estimated that 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute had been circulating through the workings - sufficient air, he thought, for the safe ventilation of the Colliery. He told the jury of the events after the first explosion and thought, from what the survivors he had talked to told him, that the first explosion had occurred at George Maddox and William William's board. He thought that the second explosion had occurred somewhere near the top of the incline. It was his opinion that gases from the nearby goaf had become disrupted - the heavy wind that had blown through the area in the previous week may have been a contributory factor to this - and lighted at the candles of the men trying to make their escape from the pit; there was certainly a lot of carnage in this area.
Walter Nicholson, a deputy-overman, was then called to give his evidence. He too had inspected the workings that morning and found everything to be in order. At the time of the disaster he was at home in bed. His son told him of the accident and he immediately went down the pit. By 3:00p.m. on Friday Nicholson and the other members of the rescue party had reached the top of the incline where they found a fall of stone thirty or forty yards long. After patiently removing the debris fifteen bodies were found underneath. Nicholson had since been within six yards of where Maddox was working. He told the jury of how men had complained in the weeks prior to the disaster and of Dryden's dismissal, but thought that the ventilation had improved considerably since that time. William Urwin, aged 14, also told the inquest, briefly, his version of the events of the day.
Friday, March 9, 1860:
Mr. Reed opened the adjourned inquest in the new venue for the enquiry, the Weslyan Methodist chapel in Camperdown. Mr. H.L. Pattinson, after having been contacted by Thomas Messer, secured the services of Sergeant Ballantyne, a barrister of London, Mr. B. Blackwell of Newcastle and Mr. W. Daglish a solicitor also of Newcastle, to represent the mineworkers. Matthias Dunn, the Government Inspector of Mines, was assisted by the solicitor Mr. Lockey Harle of Newcastle. The coal-owners were represented by Mr. Ralph Park Phillipson, solicitor of Newcastle.
The Viewer of the Colliery, Charles Carr, was the only witness cross-examined on this day. He was under examination for upwards of five hours and was said to be an uneasy witness, unlike Kirkley who quickly became a master at it. Carr informed the inquest of how he generally made an inspection of the pit once a week with his Underviewer, William Johnston. The Underviewer had until recently made an inspection of the pit on a daily basis, but was now living at Kenton and therefore only inspected the pit twice a week. More responsibility had been given to William Kirkley as regards the colliery's management. Carr had last visited the pit on February 21. He observed 40,000 cubic feet of air per minute entering the pit, measured by the Underviewer, which Carr felt was more than adequate. Kirkley had made several reports back to him since that date and reported the pit to be in a more than satisfactory condition.
Questioned by Mr. Harle on the subject of using naked flames in the pit, Carr said that in his experience using candles for board and pillar work was perfectly safe. He also, when asked, offered his opinion as to the cause of the explosions. He thought that the gases had come from either, "the face of the east narrow board, or from some of the boards southwards which fired at Maddox's candle, or from an interruption in the ventilation by a fall in the return". Carr was then asked, "Have the men ever complained to you of the pit being in a dangerous state"? His reply was, "Never". His opinion as to the cause of the second explosion was that the first explosion had disrupted the ventilation and disturbed gases in the little goaf which lighted at the candles of the escaping men. Once again he was questioned on the use of candles in the pit, but stated that Maddox's board was one hundred and sixty yards from the little goaf and therefore the use of a naked flame was perfectly safe; they had used candles ever since he had been the Viewer of the Colliery without any problems.
1860 Plan of Colliery Workings
Charles Carr was then cross-examined by Mr. Blackwell on the subject of a ventilation door shown on a plan of Burradon Colliery workings, which was produced as evidence at the inquest. The plan of the colliery was titled, "Burradon Colliery Before the Explosion, March 1860", but was shown to have double ventilating doors at a point near Maddox's board (doors that were placed close together, one acting as a backup in case the other was, for whatever reason, left open). Carr was then asked if the doors had been there before the disaster. His reply was that they were not. The interviewer pointed out that the plan was not therefore accurate as there was only a single door in that place before the accident. He was suggesting that Carr was trying to mislead the jury by making them believe that there had been double doors in place prior to March 3. Carr stated that he had only put a second door in place since as a precaution and that the single door was perfectly adequate; it was, in his opinion, not a contributory factor to the cause of the explosion. Even if it had been allowed to stand open for some time the air flow would not have been greatly impeded was the view he offered to the jury.
Monday, March 12, 1860. 11:00a.m:
The adjourned inquest was resumed. Sergeant Ballantyne attended on behalf of the pitmen and was greeted by loud cheering on his arrival by the large crowd of workmen who attended the inquest this day.
William Kirkley was examined and gave a description of the day to day operations of the Colliery and the system of ventilation. He had measured the air current in the pit on the morning of March 2 - by measuring the distance that gunpowder smoke travelled in a certain length of time - and estimated that some 13,000 cubic feet of air per minute was passing in the vicinity of Maddox's board. This he felt was more than adequate to disburse gases from a "blower" (a sudden release of gases from the whole, or solid, coal). Kirkley offered an opinion as to the cause of the accident. He felt that there had been a fall in the north return which impeded the passage of air, because the pit's ventilation was still imperfect to that day, although a fall had so far not been discovered.
Kirkley was also questioned on the subject of the double doors marked on the plan. Under duress he told the inquest that Charles Carr had ordered them to be drawn on the plan three days after the explosion had occurred. He also did not think double doors were necessary, although he had not tried the effects of leaving the single door open for any length of time.
Tuesday, March 13, 1860:
The adjourned inquest was resumed at 11:00a.m. William Johnston, the Underviewer, was called to the witness box. He described how the pit had been visited in 1858, at the pitmen's request, by the Government Inspector of Mines, who had found no complaint with the workings. Johnston had measured 40,800 cubic feet of air per minute passing through the workings in the days leading up to the disaster. This was a slightly improved figure on the one a few months previous, because of improvements made to the north return. He said that he was under instructions to spare no expense, and do whatever was necessary, to ensure the safety of the Colliery.
The evidence of some of the pitmen, namely: James Maddox, John Maddox, John Thompson, Ellis Jowett and John Stobbs was taken during the course of the day. They stated that they had been satisfied with the visit of Matthias Dunn in 1858 and with the conclusions he arrived at. They did say, however, that during January 1860 the air in the pit had been foul and had given them cause for concern. It did improve somewhat, but during the week leading up to the disaster the ventilation once again got worse. An experiment was conducted by the pitmen whereby a piece of paper was suspended from the roof of the mine attached to a length of string. If an air flow had been present the paper would have fluttered, but it did not. James Maddox was asked if he had informed William Kirkley of his concern for the safety of the pit; he replied that he had not.
During the proceedings there was a heated exchange of words between the opposing factions, Mr. Pattinson and Mr. Phillipson. Pattinson told the court how his solicitor Mr. Daglish had been coerced into pulling out of the case. Daglish was related to Phillipson through marriage; Daglish's brother had been threatened with dismissal from his position as a viewer if Daglish proceeded with the case. This disclosure brought cheering from the assembled crowd.
Mr. Ballantyne then asked the Coroner for a lengthy adjournment as he felt a full scientific investigation of the pit was necessary. The investigation was not possible at that moment because of the state of the pit and one casualty as yet being undiscovered. Ballantyne proposed that James Mather, a businessman, but with knowledge of chemistry and experience in investigating mining disasters, be allowed to make an investigation of the workings.
Thursday, March 22, 1860:
The audience attending the inquest this day was not as large as on previous occasions, the rumour being that the scientific investigation of the pit was not yet complete and that the inquest would be adjourned. However, the public that were assembled witnessed great entertainment as Mr. Phillipson argued with Mr. Longstaffe, who was representing Sergeant Ballantyne, on the subject of Ballantyne's non-arrival. The adjournment, it was pointed out, was made entirely to suit Ballantyne who did not have the courtesy to show up.
After a lengthy debate between the lawyers William Williams was called to the witness box. Williams, a few days after the disaster, had spoken to the Viewer of Seaton Delaval Colliery, and later to William Kirkley, and stated that he had been afraid to work at his board. He informed the jury that two "blowers" had ignited at his board on the morning of the accident. The Coroner asked him if he had informed Maddox or any of the deputies about these "blowers". He said that he had not. The Coroner admonished him: "So you left one hundred and thirty men and boys in the pit to their fate, without thinking it proper to make it known to the deputies or Underviewer, or even the men about the pit that two blowers had fired at your board"? Williams replied, "They were firing every day, the deputies know as well as us". The Coroner thought that if Williams had complained the deputies would have issued the men with Davy Lamps. Williams was not so sure as to whether they would.
Wednesday, April 4, 1860:
Mr. Blackwell first of all apologised for the absence of Mr. Ballantyne, who was compelled to attend a case in London. The Coroner and Mr. Phillipson once again pointed out that the adjournments had been made to suit Mr. Ballantyne. There then followed a lengthy, heated, tit-for-tat exchange of sarcastic comments between the lawyers and the Coroner. They did, however, agree that the business of the inquest would be best served by examining the persons involved in the scientific investigation of the pit, which had now been concluded. Thomas Forster, the Viewer of Seaton Delaval Colliery, was called to the witness box to be examined by Mr. Blackwell.
Forster offered the opinion that the first explosion had been caused by a fall in the north return, close to Maddox's board. On his examination of the pit he had found a fall of stone in this area which had been partially removed. It did, however, have a covering of coal-dust which, he concluded, was laid down by the explosion; therefore, the fall of stone must have occurred before the explosion.
Lockey Harle then asked if he may cross-examine the witness. Phillipson questioned the validity of Mr. Harle being allowed to do this when Matthias Dunn was there in person and could carry out the task for himself; the Coroner backed him on this point. Another heated debate broke out where Lockey Harle, addressing Phillipson, said, "You are one of those old gentlemen, you like your own way, but depend upon it you won't get it". This evoked great laughter from the assembled crowd, who were later to hiss at Phillipson on some comments he made. The Coroner threatened to have the lawyers ejected and later threatened to do the same to Baxter Langley who had whispered to Lockey Harle suggesting a question.
Thursday, April 5, 1860:
The Coroner made an opening remark in which he stated that he was pleased to see the assembled pitmen there and the interest they were showing, but he did not want to see a repeat of their conduct on the previous day. If there was any hissing or laughter the Coroner said that he would clear the courtroom. Mr. Harle then continued his examination of Thomas Forster.
Forster was questioned on the measurements of air flow he had made within the pit. The air flow he concluded was satisfactory for adequate ventilation. He was also questioned about the workings at Seaton Delaval Colliery and asked to make comparisons between the two collieries. As with Burradon, Seaton Delaval Colliery had many airway splits. Forster had experienced no problems with the ventilation at his colliery and did not think that there should have been any problems at Burradon.
James Mather was next called to the witness box by Mr. Blackwell. He was asked to give credentials as to why he should qualify to be a witness at this inquest. He stated that he was a ship owner and wine merchant, but because of his university qualification in chemistry he had attended to the injured at a colliery disaster some years previously at St. Hilda's, South Shields. A committee had been formed as a result of this colliery accident, with the purpose of investigating coal mining accidents, on which he had been asked to become a member. He had since devoted a large amount of his time to studying colliery accidents and had at one stage presented a report to Parliament. Mather had investigated Burradon pit on four occasions since the disaster. He had prepared a report on his findings at Burradon Colliery, but the Coroner would not allow this to be read out, despite much arguing on the matter. The Coroner felt that it would not only save time to give his evidence in the form of questions and answers, but was also fair to the other witnesses who had been subjected to the ordeal of this method. Mather had taken careful measurements of the pit and the volume of air at various points within it. His most important observation was made around the area of the little (4 1/2 acre) goaf where his barometer registered that there was very little air in this part of the pit, where it was most needed. Gas was also observed coming away from this area. Mather made this most pertinent statement when asked of his opinion as to the cause of the accident by Lockey Harle. He said, "I think there is too little air and too much gas". He was, of course, asked to elaborate on this statement. He thought that the pit was in a bad state and had been ready to fire, but that there was an "incidental cause" which fired the pit on this occasion. This "incidental cause", he agreed, was a fall in the north return, allowing the escape of gases from the little goaf, which travelled to Maddox's board.
Wednesday, April 11, 1860:
The inquest and the examination of James Mather was resumed. He was questioned by all the lawyers, but Mr. Phillipson, trying to disprove negligence on the part of the Colliery's management, gave him the hardest time. Phillipson asked the witness if he felt that a fall in the north return could have caused the explosion. Mather stated that a fall in the north return would have the effect of ruining the ventilation in the whole of the east workings. Mr. Phillipson pointed out that Mather had already stated that falls cannot be altogether avoided. Mather replied that they could be provided against - by adequate supporting of the roof and by having a double return. The question of the possibility of a regulating door having been left open was also discussed. Mather had experimented with leaving a door open for a length of time and found the gases to have built up in the area of the first explosion. He had found that there were large quantities of gas in the pit anyway, even coming away from the solid coal - which is not generally as gaseous as a "tender" seam. Mather thought, from what he had observed, that Davy Lamps should have been used in the pit, although these were no substitute for adequate ventilation which he thought Burradon pit lacked. He also said that Burradon pit produced more gas than was at first thought; in his experience only Wallsend Colliery produced more.
Mr. H.L. Pattinson was the next person to give evidence. He had examined the pit, accompanied by James Mather and Matthias Dunn, and reiterated most of Mather's observations. He did, however, elaborate on the experiment with the regulator door (to be known as Thirlwell's after the pony driver who used it most often). Mather, Dunn and Pattinson had travelled to Maddox's board and at a pre-arranged time the door had been opened by a third party. Immediately on the door being opened the investigators noticed a large change in the readings from their barometer. After a short time they also noticed the increasing presence of explosive gases. Pattinson offered the opinion that a trapper should have been employed at this door.
The Government Inspector of Mines, Matthias Dunn, was next examined. He had, as well as James Mather, produced a report of his investigation of the pit. The Coroner, as with Mather's, would not allow this report to be read out. Both reports hade been published in the Daily Chronicle, much to the annoyance of the Coroner who had asked that they should not be. He did, however, blame this indiscretion on the part of Baxter Langley rather than Mather and Dunn.
Dunn described his various visits to the Colliery, the most notable being in 1858 after an anonymous request from the mineworkers. At this time he found no fault with the ventilation of the pit, but did suggest that the airway link with Seghill Colliery be closed and Burradon adopt an independent ventilation system. Dunn did state, however, that the Colliery's output had risen dramatically since then which had led to a far more complicated and ineffectual ventilation system. Dunn did not think that the area surrounding the gaseous 4 1/2 acre goaf, the probable location of the second explosion, was now adequately ventilated. He thought that a figure previously mentioned of 13,000 cubic feet of air per minute travelling down the north return from Maddox's board was inaccurate. From his calculations he estimated the figure to be more like 4,000 cubic feet per minute.
Thursday, April 12, 1860:
The first witness called was William Morgan, the Underviewer of Pelton Fell - a fiery colliery and the first to use Davy Lamps. After his examination of the pit, in which he took no measurements, he concluded that the air flow in the main rolleyways was good, but near the 4 1/2 acre goaf was poor. In his opinion the position of the 4+ acre goaf was undesirable. It should have been placed in such a way as to be ventilated by the return; the boards should be ventilated by fresh air and not air that had first passed the goaves.
Another of the pit's investigators was interviewed, namely George Elliot, a head-viewer, who arrived at the same conclusions as the previously interviewed investigators and added nothing much further to the proceedings. During a break in Elliot's examination the jury expressed a concern to the Coroner that the enquiry had been lengthy and that they would like to see it concluded. The Coroner said that he was also anxious to see an end to this "painful enquiry", but was duty-bound to examine every witness that could bring further enlightenment as to the cause of the disaster. He did say, however, that he expected the inquest to have been concluded by the end of the next day. Matthias Dunn was then recalled and cross-examined by Mr. Phillipson. This was only a short examination and was concerned mostly with the powers of the Inspectorate.
Friday, April 13, 1860:
Matthias Dunn was recalled. He explained to the inquest how his powers as the Government Inspector of Mines was only suggestive - he could not enforce his recommendations - although he was to be allowed access to a colliery at all reasonable times. He did not give any more enlightening evidence as to the cause of the accident.
Several of the workmen of the pit who were at work on the morning of March 2, were then examined. They were unable to say, when questioned, that they were aware of a fall in the north return, although Thomas Weatherley, a deputy-overman, had witnessed a fall three pillars from Maddox's board on the Tuesday prior to the accident. This he was almost certain, after having been informed by the overmen, had since been cleared away. The witnesses had noticed nothing abnormal with the ventilation on March 2.
J.J. Atkinson was called and informed the jury that he was the Government Inspector of Mines for the County Durham area. The examination was lengthy, therefore the jury and the Coroner did not get their wish that the inquest be concluded on this day. The Coroner adjourned the inquest until Wednesday next.
Wednesday, April 18, 1860:
Mr. Atkinson's examination was resumed. Atkinson did not believe that a fall in the north return, as Mather had suggested, was the cause of the explosion. After having studied the plan of the Colliery in detail he thought that a fall in this position would actually have sent the gas in the opposite direction to Maddox's board. He also stated that there was not sufficient evidence of a fall in that area of the magnitude needed to block the north return. Atkinson felt that it was possible that there had been a large "blower" from the whole coal, a "blower" so large that it is extremely rare, but once again there was no evidence of this, i.e. badly burnt bodies in this district. He concluded that the fault must lie with Thirlwell's door having been left open. The weight of the door must not have been sufficient to have closed it automatically. Thirlwell, a pony driver, and the only one driving through that particular door at the time, in his search for a waggonway man must have left it open. Atkinson did not think that the Colliery owner had realized the importance of this door and a trapper should have been employed to close it. Atkinson was the keenest of the investigators to try the experiment of leaving this door open and he felt that the results of this experiment were significant. He also thought that placing an engine over the top of the upcast shaft was a hindrance to ventilation. In answer to Mr. Blackwell he suggested that the ventilation of the Colliery was slightly inadequate, but added that all collieries have a certain risk of danger. After his lengthy examination Atkinson left the courtroom in a state of "great apparent exhaustion".
The foreman of the jury was of the opinion that the boy Thirlwell need not be called for fear that he would tell lies. This raised a laugh from the assembled crowd. The jury were also satisfied that no more evidence needed to be taken, including that of Thirlwell's father.
After a summing up by the Coroner, and a suitable retirement of over two hours, the jury reached a verdict. The foreman read it out:
"The jury have come to the conclusion that the accident has been caused either by a fall in the north return or by Thirlwell's door being left open. Also there has been part neglect or oversight of some of the officials connected with the Colliery; also of some of the workmen not complaining to the proper party of the state of the ventilation."
The jury also stated that the Government's arrangements for inspecting mines, and the powers held by the Inspectorate, were inadequate. The Coroner, however, did not think that this was a proper part of their verdict, but, being pressed by Mr. Blackwell, was forced to record it.
There is no doubt that the disaster could have been avoided, but could it have been foreseen? The miners told the inquest's jury that they had expressed concern as to the pit's condition, but they did not convince everyone. This letter to the editor of the Newcastle Journal was published on March 31:
"...To believe for one moment that any of the individuals who now pretend to have foreseen this horrible event really did see it, or had, in fact, the slightest conviction of its approach, and were yet silent upon the subject, is to indulge an opinion which reduces human nature beyond the level of a brute. - Pons Aelii."
Another letter to the Journal, printed on March 17, made the same point, if not more diplomatically, and stated that the Underviewer had made clear to the jury that he had full powers to take whatever measures were necessary, and spare no expense, as to ensure the safety of the Colliery. But, as William Williams had stated at the inquest after having been scolded by the Coroner, this was not thought by everyone to be the case. Businesses have to make profits and if the overheads are too high the profits are reduced. It would appear that the Colliery's management did have warnings as to the pit's condition, but were willing to take a gamble rather than spend too much money on improving ventilation. As a writer to the editor of the Daily Chronicle pointed out, if a miner complained too much or threatened industrial action he may find himself jailed as an example to other colliers. The miners were largely at the mercy of their masters, who, although they obviously did not want a disaster of this magnitude, would have no doubt been found guilty of negligence if the trial had been held today. But the trial did not happen today; there was a ruling class in 1860 who could largely get their own way. As has been seen in previous pages there were a large number of people who probably foresaw the outcome of the inquest and were always convinced that the workmen would never get a fair hearing (and they were probably right in their assumptions). It was reported, although unproved, that the coal-owners had been guilty of dirty tricks - altering the Colliery plans, putting pressure on Daglish to resign from his duties at the inquest and sparing no expense in trying to block the Mines Inspection Bill which was at the time being read in Parliament. It also has to be borne in mind that knowledge of geology and mining methods was still in its infancy in this period. There were undoubtedly viewers of great intelligence and ability around at the time, for instance, John Buddle, but there was also no governing body for the mining industry and the inspectorate was inadequate; therefore some of the men involved in the management and supervision of collieries did not have the necessary attributes for the task.
The Shields Gazette and the Daily Chronicle were very critical of the verdict that the jury arrived at; even a letter to the editor of the Journal, published April 28, stated that the jury were cowards in not finding the real delinquents when the evidence was there before them. The writer used the phrase, "What have we here, a man or a fish? - The Tempest". Baxter Langley pointed out that after weeks of examination by scientific experts the cause of the accident still remained a mystery. He also stated that the owner of Burradon Colliery was a very rich man and £400, the sum of money he had donated for relief purposes, was a very meagre amount. To try and understand the jury's reasoning behind their verdict it is fair to say that there was no conclusive proof as to the real cause of the accident. Despite this, liability would today have been taken for granted on the part of the Colliery owner, but the jury were not necessarily expected to find a guilty party, just the cause of death. The newspapers were also critical of the conduct of the barristers and Coroner. The whole affair seems to have brought out the best and worst of human nature, but that applied to all classes of men. The barristers' conduct was at times shameful, which is maybe to be expected, but this occasion called for some dignity, which they did not show; some of the colliers, who had lost their fellow workmen in the disaster, could also be accused of the same lack of dignity. The Coroner had, of course, made a bad start in the trial, but after being reprimanded by the Home Secretary seemed to conduct the inquest to a reasonable standard. He was quite correct to reprimand the barristers and the audience for their behaviour. It was a court of law and respect for that authority is to be expected. The Coroner, however, because of the criticism of himself in the newspapers, felt compelled, after the inquest had ended, to have a constable of the County Police Force summon together the jury to give him a certificate stating that he had conducted the inquest with impartiality; they refused to do this. This disclosure was printed in The Daily Chronicle on May 19, 1860, and, of course, Baxter Langley was very critical, not least of all at the waste of Police time.
In the very same newspaper Langley published a letter written to him by barristers Henry Macnamara and John Connon who had studied the inquest transcriptions in depth. These two gentlemen were of the opinion that there was a solid case for civil action by one of the widows to seek compensation from the coal-owner. This would be the subject of much agitation and many letters to the editor over the next few weeks, but nothing seems to have come of the proposal.
Was the formation of the relief-fund committee manipulated by the upper-classes? The rich had contributed a large amount of money and quite rightly deserved a say in how it was distributed. Part of the reason why so many miners' representatives were excluded from the Executive Committee would probably be the prevalent opinion of the upper-classes that the working-classes, being ill-educated, did not know what was in their best interests. But the exclusion of Langley and Cowen was probably entirely personal. Employers had made attempts to ruin their newspaper business. Employees of engineering and mining companies could find themselves dismissed if it was discovered that they had contributed to the Chronicle's relief fund.
Was Langley fair in his press coverage and was he a genuine philanthropist? The answer to these questions is, of course, just a personal point of view, but the miners were certainly extremely grateful for his concern and support. Without a doubt he furthered their cause enormously. Langley would have realized that this support sold his newspapers in large quantities though.
A Mines Inspection Bill had been before Parliament for about eight months before the disaster occurred. It had many clauses, but it was generally aimed at raising the minimum working age in the pit, improving the Inspectorate and improving general safety, e.g. having dugouts in the main rolleyways where the men could take refuge when tubs where passing. The coal-owners were doing everything in their power to block the passing of this bill. However, the Burradon disaster made M.P.s review the bill in a more sympathetic light, but change did not happen overnight. There was, in the period around 1860, about 1,000 miners killed in Great Britain every year. There was only a gradual improvement in this figure. The mine workers were accused of showing a certain amount of apathy towards the Mines Inspection Bill (this was passed in the summer of 1861).
The Miners' Provident Association was once again promoted by Baxter Langley. An open-air meeting was held on Newcastle's Town Moor on Saturday, June 23, 1860. The organisers first made criticism of the poor attendance by the mineworkers. Langley then addressed the crowd and put forward proposals regarding the exact amount of funding needed, which he had calculated. The proposals were accepted and the plans for the Association now looked like becoming a firm reality, even without the coal-owners support. The colliery disaster had shocked the country, but there had been no radical change in the mineworkers position (partially because of an inactivity in the majority of them). It was a change though, however small, that was significant; if the disaster had not happened, further progress in improving the mineworkers' conditions could have been delayed for a long time. Certainly debates raged on for many months after the disaster, which could only be beneficial to working-class amelioration.
The coal-owners attitude - most felt they had a god-like status with their work force and did not like mineworkers attempting to dictate terms to them - was it appears slow to change. Despite all their eloquent words and assurances at the inquest, despite all the criticism that they had received from certain newspapers, this letter was received and published by Baxter Langley in the Daily Chronicle on April 19, 1860 - the day after the inquest had ended:
THE BURRADON SUFFERERS
To the editor of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle: We have received the following letter, which we print just as it came into our hands:-
Dear Frend, - I beg to inform you that the poor weddows at Borradon has nor receved thare weeks monny they have to wate a nother week they never got no notice but when thay went to the office there wase no monny so thay have to live on one weeks monny a fortnight and some of them are very bad of but the forst week that we receved the forst monney the priest at Benton church came the same day and gave us 6s a pece and so they never gave us nothing for a week and 4 days ples publish it in the papers and let the publick know for thay all think that thay ar well of and a nother thing if every one had a few pounds it wold help to put them in some way of doing but the way thay ar going on with us we have no chance exques my bad spelling so no more from your freend
Borradon Colliery April 16th
I hop you will be a freand to us and the lord will be a one to you
It could, of course, be said that we should not accept this letter at "face value" - it could be an attempt at propaganda - but the style of the letter, and the almost phonetic spelling, suggests that it could be genuinely from a worker at Burradon Colliery.
The disaster at Burradon was quickly forgotten nationwide, especially after the even greater disaster at nearby New Hartley Colliery in 1862. A mention of it is not easily found in present-day local-study works, but for the community of Burradon and Camperdown the memories of the tragedy lingered on for many years.