Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Sixty Years a Miner

In April 1924, Andrew Harbertson the elder brother of my 2x great-grandfather John, died at New Hartley, Northumberland. He was later buried at Seghill churchyard. 

The Harbertson family moved from the Chatton area of Northumberland to New Hartley in around 1853. John and Andrew's father, James was a labourer on farms, but turned to mining when the family moved further south. 

Andrew was born in 1843 at Coldmartin, a piece of farmland just outside of Wooler. He was very young when his father moved the family to New Hartley, although not too young to work in the mines.  

At the age of ten, Andrew began work under the Seaton Delaval Coal Company. As a boy, his job was to release the "keps" - blocks on which the descending cage is held to stop it moving. 

The Harbertson grave.

Andrew was performing this role on 16 January 1862 when the beam in Hester Pit broke, causing the deaths of 204 men and boys - the Hartley Pit Disaster. Thankfully, Andrew and the rest of the Harbertson family were not involved in the disaster. 

The disaster was caused by the pumping engine beam snapping in half. There was an almighty crash as the beam and other debris fell to the centre of the pit. The beam was now blocking the miner's only exit from the pit, meaning they had essentially been buried alive. 

Although there were rescue attempts, carbon monoxide began to take the miners, who eventually accepted their fate. There are heartbreaking stories of hardy, staunch fathers found with their arms around their young sons, and other young boys sat on their father's knees. 

In the aftermath of the calamity, Queen Victoria herself sent letters of condolence to the miner's wives and families, in which she expressed her sincere grief, a feeling she knew well. Victoria had only lost her dear husband Prince Albert, only a month or so before. 

The 204 men and boys were to be buried at St Alban's Churchyard, Earsdon but the churchyard could not take such an amount, and so the Duke of Northumberland gave bordering land he owned to the church. 

The Hartley Pit Disaster truly changed mining forever. Six months after the disaster Parliament passed an Act, which required all new pits sunk after that date to include two shafts, to act as another means of escape in case the worst happened again. All existing pits were to sink a second shaft before the end of 1864. 

There is a memorial and garden to the miners in Earsdon churchyard, where many people go to pay tribute.

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