Wearside Echoes: A man that helped save hundreds of lives

The church of St Nicholas, where Nicholas Wood is buried
The church of St Nicholas, where Nicholas Wood is buried
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DECADES of Wearside wind and rain have weathered the final resting place of mining engineer Nicholas Wood.

But, although the inscription on his tomb at St Nicholas’ Church in Hetton crumbles a little more year by year, it remains close to the heart of local historian Robert Walker.

“I have seen the gravestone weather greatly over time, and thus anyone wanting to read the information on it now would find it difficult,” said the former Hetton electrician.

“Few people probably know that one of the foremost engineers of his age, a man who helped save many hundreds of lives, is buried there. I find that such a shame.”

Nicholas Wood, the son of a Crawcrook Colliery mining engineer, was born at Ryton in 1795 and started work as an apprentice colliery viewer at Killingworth Colliery in 1811.

Joining the colliery in the same year was engine-wright George Stephenson – later to become known as the “Father of the Railways” – and the pair quickly became good friends.

Indeed, Wood helped Stephenson develop his own version of the miners’ safety lamp while they both worked at the pit; a device which was to save the lives of many miners.

“In the future, after many pit explosions caused by naked flames throughout the Durham coalfields, Nicholas was to help coal owners implement the use of these safety lamps,” said Robert.

Wood also helped Stephenson with his development of the early railway locomotive Blücher in 1814; the first successful loco to include cylinder rods connected directly to the wheels.

He also carried out experiments on the rolling resistance, lubrication and laminated steel springs of locos in 1818, earning himself a national reputation as an authority on locomotives.

“Wood was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, being a man of great knowledge of the working of mines and machinery,” said Robert.

“He was to later become the President of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, and was instrumental to the safety of mines and miners.”

Indeed, so detailed was his knowledge of the loco industry that, in 1823, Wood accompanied Stephenson to a meeting about the proposed creation of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Edward Pease, the Darlington businessman behind the venture, had initially planned a horse-drawn railway – until the pals persuaded him to use steam locomotives instead.

While Stephenson was put in charge of the new railway, Wood wrote an influential 1825 book analysing “motive power”. He also gave evidence to the Government on the benefits of steam.

It was in 1844 that Wood moved to Hetton Hall at Hetton – after becoming a partner in the company which owned the local colliery and taking on the post of pit manager.

Despite his duties at the colliery, however, he still found the time to join the Institute of Mechanical Engineers – and campaigned relentlessly for a college of science in Newcastle too, to educate miners of the future.

Sadly, this idea would only come to fruition after his death, when the institution he had always dreamed of creating became the forerunner of the University of Newcastle.

“He really was a great engineer – at the forefront of health, safety and education within the mines,” said Robert. “I just think it is a shame so many people seem to have forgotten him.

“There is a library named after him in Newcastle, but nothing much else. I would imagine very few people in Hetton, let alone the surrounding area, have even heard of him.”

Wood, who was married with four sons and three daughters, died in London in 1865. His body was transported back to Hetton, where he was buried in the graveyard at St Nicholas. His tomb is now Grade II-listed.

“The church was decommissioned in about 2002 and set on fire in 2006. It was boarded up after that and I’ve heard that it may now be turned into flats,” said Robert.

“But the tomb of Nicholas Wood is still in the graveyard, at least at the moment. I’d really like to see that grave restored – as it is important that we continue to remember him.

“If that can’t happen, we still shouldn’t forget what Nicholas did for our miners. There is a blue heritage plaque to him at Hetton, but I believe we should have a memorial as well.”