ST.HILDAS. South Shields, Durham. 28th. June, 1839.

The colliery was first won by Simon Temple on the land belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Durham and originally was called the Chapter Main Colliery. Coal was first wound, among great rejoicings, on the 23rd April 1810. The original Company had financial problems and the colliery was bought by Messrs. Brown, of London who was also the proprietors of the Jarrow Colliery and they sold on the lease to Messrs. Devey. At the time of the disaster, the colliery belonged to Robert, William and John Brandling.

The pit reached the Bensham Seam in July 1825 and the shaft, which was a short distance from St. Hilda’s Church, South Shields, was 143 fathoms deep and was divided into an upcast and a downcast by wooden brattice. The average thickness of the seam was about 6 feet thick and the workings extended from the shaft, southwards to a rise towards the sea. The colliery had a pumping engine of 90 h.p. and two drawing engines each of 30 h.p. There was also a 20 H.P. engine in the mine.

The colliery had always been considered safe and when the explosion occurred at abbot 9 a.m. on a Friday morning in the western workings of the colliery At the surface, smoke mixed with small coal could be seen coming from the furnace shaft. the mine was worked by candles and blasting was used. Davy lamps were used only where the coal was softer. There were about one hundred men and boys in the mine and about half of the were able to escape as they were working some distance from the explosion area but the disaster claimed fifty-one lives. Most of the dead were killed by the afterdamp and thirty of the deaths were ascribed to the fact that an air crossing was blown away and the ventilation stopped. When the smoke was seen coming from the shaft, crowds of people from the miner’s cottages that were close to the pit, assembled at the pithead. They stood in mute despair and there was frantic grief as the bodies were brought to the surface and the relatives took them home in carts.

William Anderson, a viewer at the colliery, went down soon after the disaster happened and he stayed until 2 p.m. when he was brought to the surface, exhausted. Mr. Mather, a wine merchant of South Shields, also went down the mine to give restoratives to any of the men who showed signs of life and medical gentlemen of the town went to the pit to give their services both above and below ground. Most of the men who came out of the pit were suffering from the effects of gas and when they had rested at the surface they were able to continue their work underground. One man who came out of the mine almost unconscious did not regain consciousness as quickly as the others and when asked how he was he replied, “I am not well, Sir. I have two sons in there”. In the course of the day, fifty-one bodies were recovered from the mine.

Those who lost their lives:

  • Thomas Harrison, wasteman.
  • Thomas Horne, wasteman.
  • John Dickinson, rolleywayman.
  • John Dickinson, his son
  • Matthew Gibson, left a family.
  • Thomas and Jonathan Ellison, father and son.
  • Benjamin Gibson and two sons. He left a wife and family.
  • John Scott, Andrew’s brother, left a wife and child.
  • Andrew Scott, John’s brother, unmarried.
  • John Dinning, left a wife.
  • George Calvert, left a wife and one child.
  • William Young, married.
  • John Stephenson, married.
  • Thomas Mould, married.
  • W. Lamb, married with four children.
  • H. Lamb, his brother.
  • W. Wright, left a wife and family.
  • John Snowdon, left a wife and two children.
  • W. Hall, left a wife and two children.
  • Roger Spence, married.
  • James Ranson, married with one child.
  • George Longstaff and his two sons.
  • William Longstaff.
  • James Longstaff
  • W. and Patrick Ramshaw, brothers.
  • John and George Hall, brothers.
  • Edward Hardy.
  • William Hudson.
  • Thomas Gibson.
  • George Walker.
  • Sandy Forsyth.
  • Andrew Stephenson.
  • Alexander Falconer.
  • Michael Brown.
  • W. Todd.
  • Robert Johnson.
  • W. Rogerson.
  • John Fairley.
  • John and James Moody, brothers.
  • Joseph Argyle.
  • Thomas Cooper.
  • Thomas Clegg.*

Mr. Mather, in the Report for 1852 stated:

On one unfortunate occasion, a fall of the roof took place, within a couple of yards of the mouth of the pit, and we found fourteen or fifteen men lying dead together. They had come up at a fair speed for almost a mile, had passed through a portion of the afterdamp and had got there, but being exhausted, they failed and fell down.

In evidence to the Children’s Employment Commission, a boy who escaped stated:

It came like a heavy wind it blew all the candles out and small coal about and it blew Richard Cooper down and the door upon him.

Richard Cooper said: “I was cut on the head, not very bad.” He would have lost his life if one of the putters had not carried him out of the pit.

Mr. Mather gave his account of the disaster:

The deadly gas, the resulting product, became stronger and stronger as we approached. We encountered, in one place, the bodies of five who had died from the effects of gas and had apparently died placidly without one muscle of their faces being distorted. Then there were there more who had been destroyed by the explosion their clothes burned and torn and the hair singed off, the skin and flesh tore away in several places with an expression as if the spirit had passed away in agony. Going with a single guide we encountered two men, one with a light, the other bearing something on his shoulders. it was a blackened mass, a poor dead, burnt boy he was taking put. A little further on, we found some waggons that had been loaded, turned bottom upwards and scattered in different directions. A horse was lying dead, directly in the passage, with his head turned over his shoulders as if in the falling he had made a last effort to escape he was swollen in an extraordinary manner. At one point, in another passage, we suddenly came amongst 12 or 15 men, who, in striving to reach the places where the bodies of survivors might be found, had been driven back by the surcharged atmosphere of this vast common grave. Their lamps were burning dimly and sickly and a dying red light glimmering as though through fog, as they were feeling the effects of poison. One poor man especially was so sick and ill that he had to be brought out in a fainting condition and after having been given assistance to his recovery, he still seemed much affected. The men were exerting themselves for the recovery of their unfortunate friends, acted with a solemn high-wrought, steady courage without bustle, scarcely without a remark and what remarks were made were necessarily brief and decided and generally in a subdued time such as human nature and its most vigorous perfect and ennobling moments. We beheld the deepest sympathies of the heart combined with a courage that had never been surpassed. Their companions were brought out insensible from the overcharged atmosphere struck down at their feet almost without life.

The inquest was opened the day and adjourned until the following Monday when it was established that most of the men died from the effects of gas and a very small proportion from the effects of the blast. The blasting in the mine had been carried out by gunpowder and it had been found necessary to use candles in that part of the pit. In other parts the coal was softer, and Davy lamps were used. The blast in the western workings was attributed to gas from the wastes having been ignited by a candle. The jury brought in the following verdict:

Accidental Death with a special recommendation from the jury that the practice of working on coal mines with candles be abandoned, and lamps adopted in their stead as, from the evidence taken at the inquest, it evidently appears that the explosion, causing fearful loss of life, has been caused by the incaution of the workmen, in going with a lighted candle into what is called the tenth bord of the mine, which had become foul.

The disaster left nineteen widows and forty-four children without fathers. A meeting was held on the 1st. July at South Shields with the Reverend James Carr in the chair. It was resolved to start A Subscription Fund for the relatives of the victims which, in March 1840, amounted to £1.500.

At the suggestion of James Mather, a committee was appointed soon after the disaster to investigate the causes of accidents in coal mines. As a result of a Public Meeting held in South Shields, a Committee with Mr. Ingrham in the chair and Dr. Winterbottom and Messrs Shortridge, J.W. Rixby, J. Clay, E. Ball, R.W. Swinburn, W.K. Edwards and A. Harrison with Mr. Mather and Mr. Salmon were the secretaries. the Committee made experiments in mines and talked to practical pitmen and viewers and contacted the scientific men of the age. They also looked at mining legislation in other countries. They published a Report in 1843, a document that was well before its time. Their recommendations were sound, correct and practical was proved by later events. The disaster gave rise to the establishment of the South Shields Committee on Accidents in Mines.


Information supplied by Ian Winstanley and the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.

*A researcher has commented that the Parish Register for the St Hilda’s Parish church notes next to the burial of Thomas Clegg that he was one of the 25 pitmen killed by the explosion at St Hilda’s Pit on the 28th Inst.

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