Blast that tore the heart from a town

CROWDS TURN OUT: One of the many funerals takes place in Stanley for the pit disaster victims. Thousands of people turned out to watch and pay their r

BURIAL GROUND: Crowds surround the mass grave

MARCH OF THE DEAD: One of the many funeral marches

First published in Stanley Pit Disaster

Fathers, sons, brothers and uncles – almost every street in Stanley lost a loved one in the blast that claimed 168 lives 100 years ago today.

ONE hundred years ago today, at 3.45pm, people in Stanley heard the sound of a muffled explosion.

Almost a minute later there was an almighty blast at the head of the West Stanley Colliery with fire and smoke shooting into the sky.

The force of the explosion was so strong that it blew the windows out of the workers’ terraced houses nearby.

Almost 200 men and boys had been working up to 1,000ft underground – and the explosion struck terror into the hearts of their loved ones, who rushed to the scene.

The ignition of coal dust in the air created a huge ball of fire that tore through the seams and burned, blew up and poisoned 168 pit men with carbon monoxide.

Hundreds, and then thousands, gathered at the pit head for news of the trapped miners.

There was no trained rescue team and no one knew where the injured workers were, but a rescue party was formed and, 14 hours later, the first of 30 survivors was brought from the pit.

The disaster was the worst in the history of the Durham coalfield and generated stories of exceptional heroism.

Foreman Mark Henderson made sure his 26 men stayed safe in a pocket of clean air.

Seven men who left the group to make a run for freedom were overcome with fumes and died.

After 14 hours, Mr Henderson risked his own life by going to look for a telephone to direct rescuers to his party, so they could be saved.

He made trip after trip, stepping over his fallen friends, to ensure as many as possible got out alive.

Men and boys tried to keep their spirits up by singing the hymn Lead Kindly Light but, tragically, by the time it was over, 14-year-old Jimmy Gardner, whose legs had been crushed, had died from his injuries.

As panic set in on the surface, 56-year-old midwife Susanna Todd calmly volunteered to enter the mine to help the sick.

She was the only woman to go into the pit that day, and as well as tending to the injured she also helped bring up bodies and arrange the corpses.

In 1909, Stanley was a closeknit mining community in which generations of family members worked in the industry, and the impact of the disaster on the town was profound.

Almost every street in the town had a victim or suffered one way or another.

In Ann Street, there were 17 fatalities from 12 homes, while in Henry Street, 16 died from nine houses.

Frederick Manistre was one of the survivors, but his two sons, Edward, 19, and Henry, 13, perished along with his nephew, John, who was 15 and lived two doors away.

Families were forced to come to terms with the reality that their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, nephews and uncles were dead.

The loss of life was so substantial that more than 50 bodies were buried in a mass, unmarked grave.

The stench of death in the air was so strong that boys were told to keep rats away from the corpses to stop the spread of disease.

More than 200,000 people visited the town to grieve, and those who could afford to had horse-drawn corteges to take their loved ones to their final resting places.

Townsfolk lined the streets and at times up to five funerals were held at once, with the sombre notes of The Death March playing constantly for three days.

The Northern Echo reported: “Very quickly the crowd took possession of the long trench and stood for hours on the damp clay, several deep on both sides and at the ends, watching first one, and then another of the yellow pine coffins deposited side by side, starting from the south running to the north end of the trench.”

Eerily, the tragedy had been foretold by a medium from Newcastle in the Spiritual Hall, near the pit, a little more than a week before it occurred.

James Lawrence was giving a clairvoyant description and turned to a young man and said: “I see you working in the mine – it is daylight above the ground.

“Suddenly, I hear a dull sound, then flames spread out, while a choking sensation comes over one.

“When the dust clears away many dead are laid around.

This will happen soon and in this locality.”

The man the medium was talking to was killed in the disaster as prophesied, but this was not the only premonition.

Emma Peacock was convinced that something terrible was going to happen and tried to warn people about the danger. Some people laughed at her, but one neighbour took her seriously and persuaded her husband and their six sons to stay off work.

Theirs was the only house in the street without a coffin.

Several other people had lucky escapes from being involved in the disaster.

Harry Crozier, who later played football for Middlesbrough, suffered from neuralgia and went home instead of going to the pit on that fateful day.

A group of men who became known as the Lucky Seven, had been told they could leave the workplace early and stepped out of the pit cage as the explosion ripped through the mine.

They were covered in slime and soot but walked from the carnage unscathed.

However, the fate of two friends who were working at the time of the explosion remained unknown for more than 20 years.

The bodies of William Chaytor, 55, and John Rodgers, 57, were not found until 1933.

The discovery was made by Robert Clipperton and Edward Burdon in the Busty Seam. They were in the vicinity of the old workings, when Mr Burdon pulled a board out and caused a sudden fall of the roof.

When the dust settled and the workings looked safe, they began to inspect the area.

Lying before them were the remains of the fallen miners with bones bared and their lamps nearby.

Relatives identified Mr Chaytor through a brass watch and belt he wore, and Mr Rogers through a scapular he had a habit of wearing over his shoulder.

The men would have survived the blast had they not agreed to do an overtime shift for extra money.

The legacy of the West Stanley Pit Disaster has left deep scars in the north Durham community and is intrinsically ingrained on the community’s collective consciousness.

A century after the catastrophe, teachers are ensuring the victims are not forgotten by explaining to children in classrooms the true cost of coal – and how their mining heritage is a matter of life and death.

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