The life and work of a Wearside doctor who pioneered a device which helped save hundreds of lives is to be celebrated at a museum during half-term.
Beamish is to host “explosive demonstrations”, historical investigations and a series of family activities next week to mark the 200th anniversary of the miner’s lamp – including one invented by Dr William Reid Clanny.
“Clanny was the first person to demonstrate that a steady flame could be used in mines without causing an explosion,” said Keeper of Industry Jonathan Kindleysides. “There are many significant anniversaries in the history of coal mining; however none more so than the anniversary of the invention of the miners’ safety lamp.”
Clanny was born in Ireland in 1776 and trained as a physician in Scotland. After serving as an assistant surgeon in the Royal Navy, he settled in Sunderland, spending 45 years here as a GP.
“Explosive gases had long been the enemy of the miner, and many had tried to find ways of subduing it,” said Jonathan.
“One of the earliest ways was to send a man wrapped in wet rags into areas where gas was thought to be. He would enter the workings with a lighted candle on a long pole.
“As he raised it into the roof, it would hopefully set fire to the gas without exploding it. But, he was very often killed during the ignition of the gas.”
As time went on, and coal became ever more valuable to industrial Britain, so scores of inventors tried to develop methods of safe underground working.
But it was an explosion at Felling Colliery on May 25, 1812 – in which 92 died – which proved the catalyst for renewed effort. Dr Clanny became one of the earliest safety pioneers.
“His lamp was first used at Herrington Mill Pit, owned by the Earl of Durham, on October 16, 1815,” said Jonathan.
“It was of a cumbersome design, but his lamp proved it was possible to have a burning flame in gassy conditions and Clanny was rewarded with medals by the Society of Arts.”
Two other people – Sir Humphrey Davy and engineer George Stephenson – also stepped forward with designs and, over the years, their lamps – the Davy and the Geordie – became the stuff of legend, and bitter argument.
“Neither Stephenson nor Davy patented their lamps and it would seem that all three inventors, including Clanny, worked independently at around the same time,” said Jonathan.
“It was Clanny who separated the flame from the gassy atmosphere of the mine, it was Davy who first enclosed the flame in wire gauze and it was Stephenson who first left a space above the flame for burnt air.
“The modern miners’ lamp is an amalgamation of parts from all three of the original inventors’ lamps, with many additions and improvements.”
The introduction of new mining regulations saw Beamish carry out its final gas test with a safety lamp last year, but the work of Clanny, Stephenson and Davy lives on at the museum.
Indeed, the inventions of all three will be marked next week in Just One Spark – a half-term celebration of mining, when visitors can meet pit ponies, sing pit songs and discover more about pit life.
A “startling” demonstration of how mine explosions happened is also planned and Helen Talbot, a learning co-ordinator at Beamish, said: “It will be a really exciting event.”
Other activities planned for the half-term break include a performance of traditional mining songs by folk musician Benny Graham, as well as a display by Felling Heritage Group on the Felling Pit Disaster.
“There will be lots of activities for visitors of all ages and it’s a brilliant chance to discover the important story of the life-saving miners’ lamp,” said Helen.
l WIN: We have one family day ticket to Beamish for this half-term, for up to four people, on offer. Just email the answer to this question: Where was William Clanny born? – to firstname.lastname@example.org by February 14.