FIFTY years ago, the Durham coalfield was dying. Every few months another pit closed. Hundreds of men at a time lost their jobs; communities that had sprung up around the mine a century earlier lost their raison d’etre and their principal source of income.

Today (May 3, 2018) marks the 50th anniversary of the closure of 99-year-old Wheatley Hill Colliery, with the loss of 505 jobs.

Wheatley Hill’s closure came hard on the heels of its neighbours: Trimdon Grange, which closed on February 16, 1968, with the loss of 692 jobs; Deaf Hill, which had closed in February 1967 with the loss of 534 jobs, and Wingate, which had shut in 1962 with the loss of 675 jobs.

Some of Wheatley Hill’s men were shuttled to the three surviving pits in that area, but their long term prospects weren’t good. Thornley was the first of those three to go, closing in 1970 with the loss of 950 jobs. Shotton closed in 1972 with the loss of 800 jobs and Kelloe lasted until 1983 when it shed its 900 jobs.

Those figures – 5,000 jobs vanished in 20 years – only tell half the story because a generation or two earlier, each of those pits had employed at least 1,000 men. Wheatley Hill, for example, in its heyday of 1914 had employed 1,915 men; both Shotton and Thornley had peaked at over 2,000 men each.

So in these small east Durham communities, where there had been more than 11,000 mining jobs during the First World War, by 1983, there were zero.

While everyone was concerned at the effect this would have on the communities, particularly as there had been little attempt by the authorities to grow other job opportunities before the pit inevitably died, not everyone mourned the passing of the age of coal.

For instance, Edward Cain, 77, had been a lodge official at Wheatley Hill for more than 40 years. He said of the pit closure in 1968: “The sooner men can get away from the dangers, hazards and dirt of mining, the better.”

Mr Cain was certainly right about the dangers. In its 99-year lifespan, 125 men and boys died down Wheatley Hill Colliery, although it had suffered only one “disaster”.

In mining terms, a “disaster” is an incident in which five or more lives were lost, and Wheatley Hill’s disaster occurred on January 19, 1871, when hewer John Roberts smashed into some old workings of the Thornley pit.

Huge volumes of water came gushing in. Fortunately, because Wheatley Hill was such a new pit, only 22 men were working underground, and they sprinted the 200 yards back to the cage (or lift) to take them up to safety.

But the cage could only carry ten of them.

“By the time the empty cage returned to the shaft bottom, those who were waiting were nearly drowned,” said The Northern Echo. “The water had by that time reached up to their shoulders.”

There was so much industrial debris – smashed wagons and pit props – washing around the shaft bottom that it was hard for the men to haul themselves out of the water and into the cage.

“Five men were ultimately drawn up,” said the Echo. “They stated that the missing seven gave some awful shrieks.”

The Echo speculated that the men were dead, entangled underwater in some of the workings, and said that a “pumping engine of immense power” had arrived at the pithead to begin extracting the water so that the bodies could be recovered.

It said the dead men were James Hall, aged about 50, married; Joseph Bell, 26, who left a wife and three children; Michael Rogan, 30, wife and three children; Robert Smith, 32, wife and two children; John Walker, 26, wife and two children; John Smith, 26, single, and George Cooper, 14.

Unknown to the pessimistic reporter, deep underground, four of the missing had made it through the submerged tunnels onto higher ground, where they were now drifting in and out of consciousness due to the foul air.

As the water level dropped slowly, men in the Thornley pit went “jowling” in search of survivors – they banged hammers on the pit wall and then waited in silence for a reply.

The jowling awoke John Smith from his haze. He checked the two men beside him – Bell and Hall – but they had died, and Rogan was “out of his senses and raving, the gas having upset his reason”. Perhaps having been entombed underground, shivering and half-suffocated, for 54 hours, and facing a long, lingering death in the dark, with only two deceased marras for company, he was a trifle upset…

As the jowlers neared, Smith grabbed Rogan’s hand and dived beneath the black water. The jowlers on the other side joined hands and spread out underwater, desperate to feel a fingertip in the floodwater.

On the second plunge, they were successful, and hauled the two men out.

“On the news reaching the bank that some of the men had actually been rescued, every man, woman, and child who could by any possible means get away from whatever they were engaged with hurried to the pit shaft, where a scene that beggars description ensued,” said The Times.

However, five men were dead. Immediately, the miners at Wheatley Hill and Thornley went on strike, blaming management for the disaster. An inquest was held in front of “a respectable jury” which concluded that the deaths were caused by the gross negligence of head viewer William Spencer, resident viewer William Hays and overman Thomas Watson.

The jury said that the managers did “kill and slay the five deceased by neglecting to put in proper bore holes for the safe working of the mine”, and the three were sent to face manslaughter charges at Durham Spring Assizes.

The judge, Baron Martin, dismissed the charges, saying that the experienced hewers who caused the inundation were as culpable as the mine managers.