Stage set for acts of God

The Northern Echo: CENTRAL CHARACTERS: The Slack family shortly before 1912: Joseph, James, Hannah, Mary and Abraham CENTRAL CHARACTERS: The Slack family shortly before 1912: Joseph, James, Hannah, Mary and Abraham

Sometimes, fact is more unbelievable than fiction. This week, Memories reveals the fate that befell the members of the Slack family in Shildon.

The nation’s favourite soap opera is Coronation Street, an everyday story of ordinary folks who die extraordinary deaths involving tram wheels and exploding cornershops. Today, we introduce a North-East mining community soap opera called Foundry Street, where ordinary coalfield folks’ everyday lives end in quite horrible deaths.

LIFE in the coalfield was tough in 1899, but in the first episode of the story, the principal characters, Abraham and Hannah Slack, were beginning tomake their way in the world.

Abraham was a stoneman at Eldon Colliery, near Shildon, County Durham, and they had two young boys with a third on the way.

But on May 8, Abraham is killed by a fall of stone in the colliery.With life imitating the cruelty of a soap opera, he died on his 30th birthday.

Amonth later, Hannah gave birth. She called the fatherless bairn Abraham.

The credits rolled as she opened a letter from the colliery saying she had been awarded compensation for her husband's death.

EPISODE TWO

HANNAH spent her compensation buying a family home: 4 Foundry Street, in the Cheapside area of Shildon.

It was a traditional tinymining terrace, but the 1901 census recorded Hannah living there with her three young boys, her widowed father and four of her grown-up brothers.

It must have been a cram!

The second episode ended tragically. Matthew, one of Hannah's brothers who was living with her, died in a pushbike accident on Scurr's Bank, near Spennymoor.

EPISODE THREE

ANOTHER tragedy -Hnnah's eldest son, 16-year-old James, died of Bright's disease in 1911.

Bright's disease was a name given to kidney failure. Poor James is likely to have suffered great pain. He would have been fed laxatives and been deliberately bled to reduce his blood pressure.

EPISODE FOUR

THIS would have been the ratings-grabbing special episode with a grim storyline.

Rather than attend Sunday School on January 28, 1912, Hannah's two remaining boys, Joseph, 14, and Abraham, 12, went to play on Carr's Pond between Shildon and Eldon. It was frozen.

They were accompanied by James Ferguson, aged 13, but already employed as a screener at Eldon Colliery.

"They were kicking stones and tins about on the ice when it suddenly gave way, " said The Northern Echo. All three fell through the ice.

Some playmates ran to get help; others tied mufflers together to form a rope to pull them out, but it wasn't long enough.

"Ferguson reappeared twice, but the two brothers came up four times, and were shouting for help. They were about eight yards from the edge of the pond, but nobody could approach them owing to the numerous cracks.

"The elder of the brothers, Joseph, who could swim slightly, succeeded in nearly extricating himself, but the younger one took hold of him and they both sank and did not reappear."

When Inspector Thubron arrived on the scene, the pond resembled a doughnut: ice ringing the outside and a hole in the middle. He supervised other adults who were preparing a raft to launch a rescue operation.

They floated the raft on the deep water in the middle, and took turns in sitting on it.

Using a long pole with a hook on it, they dredged the bodies out.

It took four hours to recover all three.

"On several occasions they slipped off into the water and were only rescued bymeans of a long ladder, " said the Echo.

The brave rescuers were James Nicklin, of Eldon, John Clark, of Shildon, and George Ferguson - presumably a relative of drowned James.

The Echo concluded its report by saying: "Another unfortunate feature about the fatality is that the two Slacks had lost their father and a brother not very long ago."

Poor Hannah had had a husband and four children: now in Foundry Street all she had was her daughter, Mary.

EPISODE FIVE

IN 1914, our story comes full circle.

The principal character in this episode is another Abraham Slack, the 15-year-old nephew of the Abraham who was killed in the opening episode. Young Abraham lived with his parents, Robert and Isabella, in Albert Street - a stone's throw from Foundry Street - and worked in the same Eldon Colliery where his uncle had died.

Eldon Colliery, which was known for a while as South Durham Colliery, was one of the biggest in the county. It was sunk by Joseph Pease, of Darlington, in 1829 and he built the village of Eldon to house its miners.

It closed in July 1932, but the Abrahams worked there in its heyday: in the first couple of decades of the 20th Century, it employed nearly 2,000 men and boys.

Young Abraham was employed as a screener - he sorted the different grades and sizes of coal as it came up from below on conveyor belts.

On May 20, he was clambering across two stationary belts - the "cobble" belt and the "shaker" belt - when he slipped and fell onto another shaker belt that was "travelling at a fairly fast speed".

"The witness only heard Slack scream, " reported The Northern Echo.

The boy was dragged under the metal scrapers that sorted the coal. As the distance between the underside of the scraper and the belt was only one-and-a-half inches, "he was killed instantly".

Six horrible family deaths in 15 years.

How did Hannah, the star of Foundry Street, cope with so much pain? Sadly, this wasn't a fictional soap opera. It was real life in the County Durham coalfield.

With thanks to Colin Turnerof Eldon, Mary Orme of Sadberge and Margaret Heslington who have all helped develop this sad story since it first appeared in Memories No 9.

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