Sunderland hero escaped drowning tragedy to die underground

The Oaks Colliery disaster of December 12, 1866.
The Oaks Colliery disaster of December 12, 1866.
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A former Wearside schoolboy escaped a watery grave on Hendon beach – only to end up entombed in the bowels of the earth.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of mining engineer Parkin Jeffcock, who gave his life trying to save hundreds of trapped pitmen.

The Grange School.

The Grange School.

“Although Parkin wasn’t born in Sunderland, he was a hero bred here,” said Douglas Smith, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“He was educated at The Grange School, known as the Eton of the North, and here in Sunderland Parkin Jeffcock flourished and his character developed.”

Parkin, son of John Jeffock JP and his wife Catherine (née Parkin), was born at Cowley Manor, now part of Sheffield, in October 1829.

“His family was very well-heeled,” said Douglas. “Indeed, his uncle William Jeffock JP was the very first Mayor of Sheffield.

Parkin Jeffcock

Parkin Jeffcock

“It could only have been the spreading fame of the The Grange School that persuaded his parents to send him to Sunderland as a boarder.”

The school had been established in 1830 by Dr James Cowan, a Scottish schoolmaster who taught at a Quaker school in Darlington before moving to Wearside.

Cowan opened his first school at William Street in 1822, but later moved to larger premises in Green Street before taking over The Grange manor house.

“Under Cowan The Grange grew in fame and operated, for a time, on a level with any leading public school,” said Douglas.

“Parkin flourished there and amongst his fellows, many of whom achieved considerable eminence on later life, he was popular and respected.

“Being 6ft tall, a good horseman and a good shot may have helped, but he was also a lad of high principle.”

All was to change, however, one afternoon in October 1845, when 38 boys, accompanied by four teachers, went for a swim on Hendon beach.

It was a regular practice, and all were very capable swimmers. Parkin had been due to take part, but was forced to stay behind owing to a heavy cold.

“Tragically, the students were caught by shifting sands and one boy, having gone out too far, became stranded,” said Douglas.

“Three boys and a master went to help, but all were swept into the sea and drowned.

“Parkin, of course, survived – but the school closed three years later.”

Parkin, who developed “considerable religious feeling” while at The Grange, won a place at Oriel College, Oxford, where he intended to enter the church.

Instead, however, he opted to train as a civil engineer and, in 1850, was articled to George Hunter of Belmont – an experienced colliery viewer and engineer.

“Here in the Durham coalfield, Parkin was given the opportunity of seeing the workings of the mines and early rescue equipment methods,” said Douglas.

“He made rapid progress and, on the death of Mr Hunter, Parkin entered into partnership as a mining engineer and agent in Derbyshire in 1857.

“In several colliery accidents – including one in which he nearly drowned – Parkin freely gave his services, showing personal bravery as he risked his life.”

Indeed, in 1861, he was hailed as a hero after attempting to rescue men and boys who were left trapped in a pit at Clay Cross after it became flooded.

It was not surprising, therefore, that when news of a serious explosion at the Oaks Colliery, nearly Barnsley, reached him in 1866 that he hastened to help.

“Parkin descended into the pit to try to open up air passages and rescue any men still alive. Other rescuers had tried, and died, before him,” said Douglas.

“He remained below ground for 10 hours. It proved too long. Before further help could arrive, there was a second explosion and Parkin Jeffcock was killed.

“In all 361 men were lost, including 29 volunteer rescuers. It was not until a year later that Parkin’s body was finally recovered.”

A church, St Saviour’s, was built as a memorial to Parkin at Mortomley, near Sheffield, and he is also remembered on a memorial at Doncaster Road, Barnsley.

“This year will see the 150th anniversary of the Oaks pit disaster commemorated and Parkin, a hero bred in Sunderland, will be remembered,” said Douglas.

l Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, is open each Wednesday and Saturday morning for local history and family research.