[Seaham folk will be very familiar with what follows – those from further afield may not]
On a Saturday morning in May last year, I picked my way through Seaham Hall Dene, towards the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin. It was the sort of sunny-but-nowhere-near-as-warm-as-it-looks morning that Mother Nature specialises in around this part of the Durham coast; that duplicitous sort of day which deceives you into wearing short sleeves but leaves you wishing for a winter coat as soon as you enter the shade. Knee deep in bluebells and wild garlic, I stumbled off the main footpath and through beds of nettles, descending deeper into the dene, accompanied only by birdsong and the rustle of the bitter wind amongst the trees.
Decades had passed since I was last here and I had forgotten how just beautiful it is. The dene cuts through fields and woods, carving its way through the limestone, from the railway line to the sea, snaking past the bottom of the terraced gardens of Seaham Hall Hotel , overlooked by the little church high to the left. A green chainlink fence, recently installed by the proprietors of the hotel, separates the neatly-ordered gardens from the chaotic wilderness of the dene, much as the original boundary once separated Lady Frances Anne and her life of incredible wealth and privilege from the coal-stained lives of the employees who laboured in her mines and docks a mile or so away. An abandoned, overgrown carriage bridge constructed of shining white-grey stone spans the dene, a long-forgotten connection between these very disparate worlds, its ornate red brick paving just visible here and there under the mud and gravel and weeds.
I trudged through the muddy stream that meanders through the bottom of the dene, past the small cave which was once used in the Hall’s heyday to store ice for its distinguished residents. The cave is currently occupied by some hardy soul, whether by choice or by force of circumstance I do not know. Clambering back up the steep ivy-clad banks, I rejoined the footpath which skirts the churchyard and eventually opens out onto Church Lane.
I lifted the latch on the heavy wooden gate and began to walk up the footpath which leads through the churchyard and around to the front of the honey-coloured stone church. I had planned to start my search at the far side of the graveyard, next to the ancient stone wall boundary, under the shade of a large tree which stands opposite the church door, and has done so for centuries. There are no regimented rows of gravestones, no neatly clipped lawns or borders; the grass grows long as if in a meadow, rippling in the sea breeze, punctuated with wild flowers. The ancient headstones seem scattered at random, like seeds cast down by some divine hand. For some reason I stepped off the path into the long grass to my left and turned to face the church. I looked back up towards the small tower and noticed immediately that the flag of St George was missing. Unusual. It’s always there, whatever the weather. I glanced down, intending to retrace my steps to the path, and there it was, the very thing I was seeking, right next to the path, the inscription on the golden headstone written on the reverse side, indicating that the occupants of this grave were buried facing the sea.
“ In Loving Memory of JOHN KNOX
Beloved Husband of ELIZA JANE KNOX
Who Died Sept 28th 1905 Aged 72 years
Also the Above ELIZA JANE KNOX
Who died Dec 6th 1908 Aged 82 years
Also JOHN aged 17 years
And DAVID aged 14 years
Sons of the Above Who Were Killed
By the Explosion At Seaham Colliery
Sept 8th 1880”
From almost the very beginning, Seaham Colliery had a dangerous reputation, and it soon became known throughout the county as the “Hell Pit”. Its reputation was well deserved – in 1852 alone there were 3 explosions, with 6 lives lost. An inquest revealed that naked lights were still being used, despite the widespread availability of miner’s lamps. One of those killed was a 10 year old boy, Charles Halliday. His brother escaped. Child labour was of course commonplace, and continued into the early twentieth century. A government enquiry in 1842 had established that children as young as 5 years old worked underground as trappers, opening and closing the doors situated at intervals from the shafts to the coal face to allow fresh air to flow, for up to sixteen hours a day. My own great grandfather John Clyde first went to work down the mine at Seaham when he was 12 years of age, and worked there all his life, apart from a few years during the First World War when he exchanged the horrors of the coal face for the horrors of the trenches. My great great grandmother carried one of her small sons on her back to his work at Murton Colliery every day.
A further explosion claimed two lives in 1864, and some 26 souls were lost in the horrific events of the explosion on 25th October 1871. Only 4 bodies were brought out initially – the remaining 22 were not recovered for another 2 months, as the part of the mine where these poor men lay was sealed off to prevent the risk of further explosions and so that coal production could continue. As far as the colliery owners were concerned, mining had to continue, at any cost.
At twenty past two in the morning of Wednesday 8th September 1880, a massive underground explosion tore through Seaham Colliery. So great was the explosion that it was said to have been heard by sailors on ships moored at Seaham Harbour, and by the villagers at Murton, another colliery village a couple of miles inland. In Seaton Village, perhaps Eliza Knox awoke with a start and knot of dread in her stomach.
At the time of the explosion, the Colliery employed some 1500 men and boys and produced half a million tons of coal a year, all of it mined by hand with picks and chisels, by coal hewers crawling on their bellies often in tunnels little higher than their knees, illuminated only by the light from their lamps, stripped down to the waist due to the intense heat. The coal seams and the tunnels which followed their course stretched out for miles under ground, even out beyond the coast and under the sea bed. They’re still there. 2000 tons of coal would be brought to the surface of the mine every single day. That night , there were 231 men and boys underground on the overnight shift, and hundreds of pit ponies.
Such was the force of the blast that both shafts were blocked, rendering initial rescue attempts impossible. It was at least 12 hours before sufficient debris could be cleared to allow access to the upper seams, and even then only by lowering rescuers in the kibble, a large basket on a rope, as the cage and winding gear had been destroyed. Nineteen survivors were brought up from the Low Pit shaft; a further forty-eight were eventually brought out alive from the High Pit. As time passed, the hopes of finding any other men alive quickly began to fade.
News of the explosion quickly spread far and wide. A telegram was sent from the Government Inspector of Mines to the Home Secretary :
“I regret to report an explosion of gas at Seaham Colliery at 2 o’clock this morning . Two hundred men in the pit. Shafts blocked. Seventeen men saved in an upper seam. Sounds from men below. Plenty of assistance. Work progressing favourably. Hope to get down before night.”
The Times reported on 9th September 1880, the day after the explosion
“ A disaster which appears to be of appalling magnitude occurred at Seaham Colliery, Durham, the property of the Marquis of Londonderry…… Women who may be widowed and children who may be fatherless are waiting drearily in the roadways leading to the colliery”.
It soon became clear that there would be no more men rescued ; fires still raged everywhere underground and those parts of the mine that were accessible were too dangerous to enter due the presence of gas and the risk of further explosions. On 10th September 1880 The Times described the scene
“The wreckage is fearful. The horses and ponies employed in the mine, about 250, are dead. They have either been killed in the explosion or suffocated”.
On 2nd October it was reported that a fire had been found in the area of the stables, which was still burning some 23 days after the original explosion:
“There have now been 100 dead ponies drawn from the pit. One of the horsekeepers, named Vickers, was sent to bank last night. His body was found under a fall. When got out it was so dreadfully mutilated that there was no possibility of recognising him, and his son could only identify him by his trousers”.
There were heavy losses among the pony drivers too, teenage boys generally, employed to guide the teams of ponies pulling the coal tubs back and forth from the coal face to the bottom of the shaft. David and John Knox, the Seaton Village boys, were amongst the dead. Their deaths were not registered until 11th October 1880, 33 days after the explosion, suggesting either that their bodies were not recovered for some time, or that they were not easily identified. One cannot comprehend the agony that their parents went through as they waited at the pit head for news of their beloved boys, eventually burying the boys together in the simple grave in the ancient churchyard at St Mary’s.
The Knox family were not alone in their grief. There was barely a family in the village left unscathed by the disaster, barely a street that did not lose at least 1 man. 164 men and boys perished , along with 181 pit ponies. Almost 11 per cent of the mine’s entire workforce were killed in this single incident. The testimony of the rescuers who gave evidence at the subsequent inquest held at the Mill Inn bears witness to the horrors they endured, the charred and horribly mutilated bodies they encountered. Families lost fathers and sons, brothers and cousins. Dozens of funerals took place every day, most at Christ Church, situated right opposite the colliery and where the memorial to those who perished still stands.
No doubt the bereaved relatives would have hoped that their loved ones perished instantly and without suffering. However there is heartbreaking evidence that this was not the case, with some groups of men, unharmed by the initial explosion but trapped by rockfalls, surviving in pockets of the mine 1000 feet or more below ground for at least twenty four hours until overcome by gas or slowly suffocating in the darkness as first their lanterns and then their air supply eventually ran out.
When more of the bodies were eventually discovered, inscriptions were found chalked on planks of wood next to where these poor desperate souls lay.
“ Five o’clock and we have been praying to God”
“The Lord has been with us, we are all ready for heaven – Ric Cole, 1/2 past 2 o’clock Thursday” ( written a full 24 hours after the explosion)
There then appears a more faint message, in the same hand:
“ Bless the Lord we have had a jolly prayer meeting, every man ready for glory. Praise the Lord – R. Cole”
Perhaps one of the most tragic stories was that of 33 year old Michael Smith and his sick little boy, young Michael, who died at home on the same day. He scratched a final note to his wife Margaret and 3 children onto his tin water bottle :
There was 40 of us altogether at 7am. Some was singing hymns but my thoughts was on my little Michael that him and I would meet in heaven at the same time. Oh Dear wife, God save you and the children, and pray. Be sure and learn the children to pray for me. Oh what an awful position we are in!”
– Michael Smith, 54 Henry Street.
Such stories touched the hearts of the nation, and various relief funds were set up to assist the 107 widows , 2 aged mothers and 259 orphans left behind. Donations poured in from around the country. Joseph Sebag, of Hyde Park, London, wrote a letter to the Editor of The Times on 7th October 1880, enclosing a cheque in the sum of £5 for the widow of Michael Smith
“As a director of a large industrial concern in South Wales, I am not altogether unacquainted with miners, and it is pleasant to know that, notwithstanding the influence of trade unionism and drink, there are to be found among them such men as Smith.”
Within weeks of the disaster, relations between the miners and the colliery management began to deteriorate. At the beginning of October 1880, the decision was made to brick up or “stop” the Maudlin seam in an attempt to allow the underground fires to burn out and so that coal production could resume. This caused outrage amongst the workforce and great distress among the bereaved, as many of the bodies of the victims had still not been recovered. In fact the last of the bodies, the remains by then mummified, would not be recovered until 6th September 1881, almost exactly a year after the explosion occurred. The Durham Chronicle records how a strike was called, but the men went back to work not long afterwards as they were promised increased wages by the colliery managers, and that the Maudlin “stoppings” would soon be withdrawn. Although pay was increased, the managers reneged on their promise to take down the stoppings and remove the remaining bodies.
The entire workforce came out on strike in December 1880, in protest at management’s treatment of the widows and their failure to retrieve their fallen colleagues. The widows of those who had perished were each paid 1 shilling per week, and 3 pence for the education of each child, but this was paid directly to the school. Eliza Knox was paid the sum of £12 in compensation for the death of each of her sons. Because all of the miners’ cottages in Seaham were owned by the Londonderry estate, and exclusively for occupation by employees of the mine, those widows left without a husband or son working at the pit were eventually required to leave their homes or face eviction.
By February 1881, the striking miners were desperate, and the resolve of some began to waiver. A few broke away and returned to work as blackleg (i.e. strike-breaking) labour ; blacklegs were also brought in from other mines in the county. The strikers were blacklisted and which prevented them from seeking work at other collieries, and many were threatened with eviction. Disturbances, protests and violence followed, with some of the strike-breakers and the blackleg labour being assaulted by their former colleagues. The Londonderrys came down hard on their upstart employees – 50 men were arrested. 5 were imprisoned in Durham Gaol ; a compromise was eventually reached and 8 men were “victimised”. These 8, known as the sacrificed men, were sacked from their jobs and forcibly evicted , with their wives and children, from their homes. They were prevented from seeking work elsewhere. The Miners’ Union awarded each of the sacrificed men the princely sum of £50 pounds to enable them to try to make a new start elsewhere. Some of the men chose to emigrate to America, settling in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. A vote was held amongst the remaining striking miners on returning to work; the majority voted to stay out but they were unable to return the two thirds majority required and by March 1881 the strike was over.
The inquest proceedings rumbled on, a report was presented to Parliament and a formal Enquiry commenced at the Londonderry Institute in Tempest Road on the 10th October 1880. The Enquiry heard that ventilation in the mine was by means of a furnace fire at the bottom of the shaft. This practice was subsequently made illegal but not for another 30 years. The Enquiry eventually determined that the cause of the explosion had been “shot firing” in the curve between the two shafts, which had probably ignited a lethal combination of gas and coal dust. Incredibly, all 4 previous explosions had occurred at the same spot and in almost identical circumstances. Astonishingly, and counter to the direction of the Coroner himself and the huge amount of evidence which suggested gross negligence on the part of the colliery owners, the jury returned an open verdict. Perhaps the jury men having witnessed the fate of the striking miners were too fearful of the Londonderrys and their all-encompassing power over the lives of their employees and the village tradesmen to lay any blame at their door. In the longer term, the events at Seaham led to further research upon the explosive qualities of coal dust, which saved countless lives, but for the victims and their families, justice was denied.
Seaham Colliery finally closed in 1988.
[Sources: The Times- Archives
Durham Mining Museum Archives
“The Horsekeeper’s Daughter” by Jane Gulliford Lowes (forthcoming)
‘Troubled Seams” by John McCutcheon (1954) – extracts reproduced with kind permission of the Durham County Archive and Durham Arts Museums and Libraries]