Colliery disaster claimed lives of children as young as six

A map showing Newbottle Colliery and the nearby waggon railway.
A map showing Newbottle Colliery and the nearby waggon railway.
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TODAY marks the 200th anniversary of one of the worst disasters in Wearside’s early mining history.

Almost 60 men and boys lost their lives when an explosion ripped through the Success Pit at Newbottle on June 2, 1815. Among those to perish was six-year-old John Stout.

Ron Stout, who lost an ancestor in the Newbottle Colliery disaster.

Ron Stout, who lost an ancestor in the Newbottle Colliery disaster.

“The disaster holds special meaning to me as John was my great-great-great uncle. His father, my great-great-great-grandfather, was also killed,” said Wearside man Ron Stout.

“It is a sobering thought for me that, if John’s 14-year-old brother Edward - also a miner - had been around the site of the explosion, I would not be here now to reflect on the tragedy.”

The abundance of “black diamonds” beneath Newbottle was exploited by the Nesham family from the late 18th century - who owned a string of collieries across the township.

Among the earliest to be sunk was the Success Pit, later part of Newbottle Colliery, which opened in around 1774 and employed dozens of miners - many under the age of ten.

Just 15 miners survived; many of them severely hurt. Six out of 19 pit horses were also killed.

Ron Stout

Just over 40 years later, on Friday June 2, 1815, disaster would strike the pit. As 72 men and boys toiled beneath the soil, a “dreadful explosion” at around 5pm left 57 of them dead.

“Though the flame did not ascend the shaft, a large column of dust plainly indicated to the workmen above ground the sad catastrophe that had happened,” it was reported at the time.

“Immediate exertions were made to save, if possible, the lives of those in the pit, in which they so far succeeded as to bring all the bodies to bank by the morning of the 4th.

“Very few of the bodies were disfigured, and in many life was still extant; several of whom, shocking to relate, died the moment they breathed the fresh air!”

A sudden inrush of firedamp from old workings was blamed for the explosion, while toxic after-damp gases overpowered many of those who survived the flames of the initial blast.

Indeed, a report into the disaster revealed: “It appeared the fire passed down the ways, destroying all that encountered its fury, until it was impeded and broken by a large wagon.

“After the torrent had passed, the men left the workings in hope of escape. Few were able to reach the shaft; some overpowered at the very moment they hoped to have escaped.”

The first person to reach the surface was six-year-old John, but he still perished. Indeed, just 15 miners survived; many of them severely hurt. Six out of 19 pit horses were also killed.

“John was the youngest to lose his life, while the oldest was 55. What that old article doesn’t mention is that the father of the six-year-old was also killed in the explosion,” said Ron.

“John Stout senior was my great-great-great-grandfather, who was 43 at the time. He left a widow, three more sons and three daughters - including 14-year-old Edward.

“We can only speculate as to whether my great-great-grandfather Edward was either a survivor of the blast or on a different shift. I would certainly not have been here if he had perished too.”

Life, despite the disaster, had to continue. As the Stouts, and dozens of other families, struggled to come to terms with their loss, so the Success Pit went back into production.

And, just four years later, it was among of batch of Nesham collieries purchased by the Earl of Durham for £70,000 - around £5million today. The last of these ceased mining in 1956.

“I first came across the tragedy some years ago, when my older brother was researching the family tree. The Battle of Waterloo took place just over a fortnight later,” said Ron.

“It is obviously important to commemorate Waterloo, but I believe it is just as important to remember those who lost their lives in the many mining disasters across the North East.”

The youngest miners to perish in the Newbottle disaster:

* George Barker, aged 15.

* James Barker, aged 13.

* Jonathan Barker, aged 11.

* John Burnop, aged 10.

* Thomas Burnop, aged 14.

* Two Fawcett brothers - aged nine and 12.

* John Gallon, aged 15.

* Martin Gardiner, aged 15.

* William Gardiner, aged 19.

* George Gastard, aged 13.

* Thomas Gastard, aged 15.

* William Hall, aged 12.

* Michael Holmes, aged 12.

* Thomas Pearson, aged 11.

* John Spensley, aged 19.

* Simon Spensley, aged 11.

* John Stout, aged six.

* Robert Sutton, aged nine.

* William Sutton, aged seven.

* George Wilkinson, aged 12.

* William Williamson, aged ten.

* Thomas Winship, aged 12.

* Walter Winship, aged 17.

* William Winship, aged 10.