In September 1880, a pit village community was left in shock by a colliery explosion.
The Seaham Colliery disaster left 164 men and boys dead. Back on the surface, women and children waited at the pit shaft – hoping and praying their loved ones had survived.
Sunderland author Fred Cooper, born in Seaham, researched the incident and its aftermath and has shared the story with Wearside Echoes.
Heroic rescue parties descended the shafts in a large bucket, into a mine on fire; full of noxious gases.
Roadways were totally wrecked with falls of roof everywhere and with every likelihood of another explosion.
Sixty-seven men and boys were rescued unharmed from the main coal seam within the first day, but men in the Hutton and Maudlin seams were trapped below the main coal level.
Messages were found from men who died. One used a brattice board to write a message in chalk. It was found near his body. Another used a nail to scratch a message to his wife on his tin water bottle. “My last thoughts are of you and the children,” it said.Fred Cooper
In the following days, exploration parties came across bodies and those trapped by roof falls that died of suffocation in the afterdamp.
The personal stories of some of the victims were heart-breaking.
Thomas Hindson twice started out for work but returned home feeling an uneasy premonition.
But he then set off again never to return. He was a Corporal in the 2nd Durham (Seaham) Artillery Volunteers and had only recently returned from Shoeburyness after winning the Queen Victoria Cup on the 68-pdr guns.
Twenty-six NCO’s and gunners of the brigade were also lost in the explosion.
Another man, George Dixon, refused to flee for safety, preferring to stay with his injured putter lad.
He was later found with his arm around the boy – both dead from the effect of afterdamp.
Messages were found from men who died. One used a brattice board to write a message in chalk. It was found near his body.
Another used a nail to scratch a message to his wife on his tin water bottle. “My last thoughts are of you and the children,” it said. Many more stories appear in the book.
Sadly, there was another effect of the disaster.
Fred explained: “There were still 28 miners in the Maudlin seam. The re-opening of the seam was deferred time and again because the fire was still raging.
“The pitmen at Seaham Colliery had long upheld the principle that they would not work until the body of anyone killed in the pit was brought to bank. The men refused to work whilst the bodies of their colleagues remained in the Maudlin seam.
“The local lodge declared an all-out strike which continued for many months.
“The miners’ coal allowance was stopped and with no food and no coal for cooking and heating in the harsh winter months, the strike began to cause real hardship and deprivation to the whole mining community. In desperation some striking miners assaulted blackleg workers and were hauled before the magistrates’ court at Seaham.
“Determined to show an example that intimidation of working miners would not be tolerated, five miners were sent to Durham jail.
“Eventually the strike was settled and all but eight men, the “sacrificed men”, were re-employed. These were accused of being troublemakers by the colliery management but were in fact mostly the local lodge officials.
“Some of these men were evicted from their colliery houses and three months later the “sacrificed men” with their wives and children left Seaham to make a new life in America.
“My book gives details of that momentous journey across the Atlantic to Philadelphia and onwards on trains heading west to Indiana and Kansas.
The book, One Year of Hell, is available in paperbook at £8.99 from Amazon, iBooks, EBay, East Durham Heritage and Lifeboat Centre at Seaham Marina and from Seaham Family History Group.
It is also available as an eBook from Amazon, iBook’s, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and others, at £2,99.