Hundreds turn out to remember lives lost in 1862 colliery disaster

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MONDAY marked the 150th anniversary of a mining disaster which left 204 men and boys dead.

A community came together on the day to remember the lives lost at New Hartley Colliery, also known as the Hester Pit, on January 16, 1862, by holding memorial services, concerts and other events.

The disaster unfolded after the beam of a pumping engine broke, sending tons of cast iron into its sole shaft, blocking any chance of escape for the miners below.

Those not killed by the fall died of suffocation while trapped in the pit as rescuers were unable to reach them in time.

On the anniversary itself, a service of remembrance was held at the pit head in the memorial garden.

Dignitaries and ancestors of those who lost their lives in the disaster laid wreaths.

Sylvia McDougle, of Simonside, Seaton Sluice, whose great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Brown, 25, and his brother Ralph, 15, both died in the disaster, was among those at the service on Sunday.

Thomas left a widow called Martha and one-year-old baby son called Ralph.

Thomas and the elder Ralph were two of four brothers employed at the pit.

Sylvia said: “I grew up hearing the family’s stories about the disaster, and I wanted to be at the memorial service. It was an amazing turnout.

“My great-great-great-grandfather and his brother both died, and their other two brothers only survived because they were working on another shift.”

Seaton Valley Council vice-chairman Susan Dungworth said: “This weekend’s activities in New Hartley have been fantastic, and I have felt immensely proud to be part of them.

“The memorial concert on Friday, the remembrance service on Sunday and the pit head vigil on Monday have brought villagers of all ages together with descendants of the miners, historians, miners and local dignitaries to honour the dead, celebrate the present and look forward to the future.

“The bits that stand out for me are the procession of banners on Sunday and the singing of the first school pupils in the silence of the frozen memorial garden on Monday morning.

“The banners were carried by women and children who symbolised the women and children who rebuilt their lives and ensured the survival of the village itself.

“I will never forget standing in the packed memorial hall, holding the newly blessed banner as the Ellington Brass Band played Robert Saint’s Gresford, the miners’ hymn, or returning to the packed hall after the vigil to see over 100 children and adults eating soup and sharing their stories.

“It was a very special weekend indeed for the village of New Hartley.”

Seaton Valley Council has provided funding for a new memorial path, and Hartley county councillor Anita Romer gave £8,000 out of her small schemes fund towards the repair and renovation of the two circular structures at the pit heads in the memorial garden, and a new sandstone plaque to be placed in the front of one of the structures.

Limited-edition glasses, a replica of those produced to commemorate the victims of the disaster fund in 1862, are being sold alongside a calendar to raise money to improve the memorial garden created around the old mine shaft.

Poet Keith Armstrong is putting out a book, Hartley Calamity, featuring writing produced in response to the tragedy, including work by pitman poet Joseph Skipsey, and it will be launched at an event at the Mining Institute in Newcastle next Thursday.

Over the weekend, folk group Beeswing performed a concert at New Hartley Memorial Hall, Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band performed at the Playhouse Whitley Bay and memorial services were held at St Alban’s Church and at New Hartley Memorial Hall, and a new memorial banner was unveiled.