The tough life of Victorian miners ... a Sunderland author takes a look

The memorial to the 1880 Disaster in the Christchurch Miners Garden of Remembrance.
The memorial to the 1880 Disaster in the Christchurch Miners Garden of Remembrance.
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The heartbreaking story of a colliery disaster and its aftermath has been told in the latest book from a Sunderland author.

Seaham-born Fred Cooper, later of New Herrington, has extensively researched the history of Seaham Colliery for the last year.

The cover of the new book.

The cover of the new book.

He told Wearside Echoes: “I knew about the tragic 1880 Seaham Colliery disaster that killed 164 men and boys – everyone did – but during the research for this book I was totally unprepared to learn about the unbearable pain and heartache suffered by the pit community.”

Fred’s latest publication – his ninth – is titled One Year Of Hell.

The retired University of Sunderland finance director said: “Local history is an interest that I have had from being a young boy and as I get older I find more and more incredible and interesting stories about the history of Seaham.

“The town has so many interesting historical buildings, characters and events that once you scratch the surface you reveal a wealth of local history often lost to the public for many years.”

The wives and families of men working down the pit reluctantly accepted the day-to-day accidents that injured and maimed their husbands as another burden to bear and more hardship to overcome. But in addition came the terror of miners the world over – explosion

Fred Cooper

Fred’s family moved from Seaham Harbour to Seaham Colliery when he was just a boy.

“The silhouette of the High Pit dominated the view from Eastlea Road,” he said.

“The pit yard was my playground during the day and the washery and screens were lit up throughout the night. The sight and sounds of the tubs leaving the cage at the pithead and clanking and banging as they progressed up the gantry on their way to the washery became a familiar noise in my ears as I went to sleep. My father worked underground.

“He was an experienced and hardworking miner who was always concerned for others before himself. He constantly reminded me from a very early stage that he would never allow me to work down the mine.”

And Fred’s latest book explains how working in the mines was tough, hot and dangerous work.

“My research showed that in the latter part of the 1800s the colliery was given a fearful name by the Seaham Colliery miners. The ‘Hell Fire Pit!’

“Although temperatures down a pit can become hot, that alone does not warrant such a name – it was more than that.

“For 30 years since it first drew coal there were dreadful accidents. That was nothing unusual for coal mines in Victorian times.

“The wives and families of men working down the pit reluctantly accepted the day-to-day accidents that injured and maimed their husbands as another burden to bear and more hardship to overcome. But in addition came the terror of miners the world over – explosion.

“In less than 30 years since coal production began at the two collieries there were six horrific explosions that caused great injury and loss of life.”

Each of the first five explosions is recounted in detail in the book.

Fred added: “The organisation and management of the ‘Knack’ pit in 1880 is discussed so that the reader with no knowledge of coalmining can better understand the workings of the mine. All of the senior roles at the pit are described; plans of the ventilation system are shown and explained; the hazards from direct flame and the types of safety lamps used in 1880 by pitmen at the colliery are set out and the safety precautions taken when shotfiring with blasting powder are explained.

“This prepares the reader for the shocking events that happened in September 1880. The events covering the next 12 months down the mine and in the pit village are chronicled day-by-day in great detail.”

But that’s a story for an instalment next week.

The book One Year of Hell is available from this weekend priced 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 on pre-order as an eBook from Amazon, iBook’s, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and others, at £2,99, from January 11.