Men and boys left home that morning for to earn their daily bread
Little thought before that evening that they'd be numbered with the dead.
Let us think of Mrs Burnett who once had sons but now has none
By the Trimdon Grange explosion, Joseph, George and James are gone.

TODAY is the 140th anniversary of one of the worst pit disasters in the Durham coalfield when 74 men and boys, including Mrs Burnett’s sons, were killed.

At 2.40pm on Thursday, February 16, 1882, an explosion occurred deep in the Harvey seam below the rolling south Durham countryside. The force of the blast mutilated those who were closest to its point of ignition, blowing their remains hundreds of yards along the tunnels in a fireball, slamming their bodies into walls and the heat then consuming whatever was left.

In contrast to their brutal deaths, a poisonous cloud of unbreathable gas then spread silently through other seams, quietly carrying away scores more.

The Northern Echo: The Graphic magazine's front page illustrating the Trimdon Grange disaster

On the surface, 850ft above the Harvey, the people of Trimdon Grange heard and felt the ominous rumble. Then they saw the shaft erupt, like a volcano, as a cloud of dust, rubbish and smoke came mushrooming out of it. It was the announcement that every mining community dreaded, and now it was just a question of how many. There were at least 94 underground.

The cage – the lift that took the men down to work – was damaged in the blast, and so, quickly and bravely, men were lowered in a kibble to begin the rescue and retrieval operation.

Kelloe pit, two miles away, was connected underground to Trimdon Grange, and undermanager Herman C Shler took a rescue party in that way. They saw the extraordinary force of the blast had blown doors open, and then they succumbed to the afterdamp - poisonous gases created by the explosion. Five would-be rescuers, including 73-year-old Mr Shler, died at Kelloe.

The Northern Echo: A 100-year-old postcard of Trimdon Grange Colliery

A large, anxious crowd pushed to the pithead, but was held back by a cordon of police. Women – who had suddenly been made widows – wailed. Children – now fatherless – cried.

They got the pitwheel working, bringing the cage up with a curious cargo: some living, some dead. Families greeted the living with emotional scenes of relief; the stretcher bearers moved forward to accept the bodies.

"The cage ascended, and the eager crowd gazed curiously at the shaftsman, seated on the top of the cage, supporting in his arms something swathed in canvas, " said The Northern Echo. "This was announced to be the body of Robert Maitland, a hewer, who leaves a widow and three children to mourn the loss of their breadwinner."

The pitwheel turned again, bringing up more bodies.

Many were terribly burned. Some, said the Echo, were "mutilated out of human shape".

"At times, the scenes were of the most sickening description," said the Echo. "Now a mangled corpse, literally, in fact, blown to atoms, was brought to terra firma and rapidly taken to the extemporised dead house, while shortly afterwards a youth who had not yet seen 17 summers, with placid smile, and who had apparently died without any struggle, quickly succeeded."

The Northern Echo: The pit memorial at Trimdon Grange in memory of the 74 men and boys who died in the Trimdon Grange Colliery disaster in 1882.

The memorial at Trimdon Grange

The Durham County Advertiser told a similar story. "Patrick Durkin's skull was severely fractured and his face so badly scorched with fire as to quite disfigure his features," it said. "His father was sent for, and the poor man was quite frantic with grief when he recognised the remains of his body. Identity was proved by means of the boots or clothing."

Patrick was just 12 years old. He was one of 30 victims not yet out of their teens. He wasn’t the youngest. That honour fell to Thomas Dormand, who was only 11.

The body of John Errington, 33, a waggonwayman, was found with a boy on each arm and another lying on top. John was himself a father of three and he had, it was surmised, been trying to usher the youngsters to safety when the brunt of the blast had caught them all and carried them away.

The Northern Echo: Trimdon Grange miners

Trimdon Grange miners

As the cold February evening darkened, bonfires were lit to warm those waiting for news and to increase the ventilation in the ghastly corridors underground where the rescuers were still being killed by pockets of gas.

The scene at the pithead must have been unreal, with pitwheel turning, the orange flickerings from the flames on the faces of the womenfolk, and the noise of hammers and planes puncturing their mourning as, in a shed next to the temporary dead house, coffins were knocked together.

They needed 74 altogether.

The Northern Echo: NORTHERN ECHO - FRIDAY FEBRUARY 17 1882

The Northern Echo's report of the disaster from 140 years ago

The Echo said: "The most agonising incident of the night was when poor Mrs Burnip, who from an early hour in the afternoon had been lingering about the pit mouth, saw with horror two of her lads brought up". This was Mrs Burnett, who saw her boys James, 17, and George, 19, who was "frightfully burnt", brought up. Five hours later, her family was complete when the body of Joseph, 23, was delivered to the dead house.

The funerals began on the Sunday, three days after the blast. From early morning, the village was packed with relatives, friends, well wishers from communities across the coalfield, as well as gawpers. The railway estimated it carried 15,000 people into Trimdon Station every day by special trains, and the streets were choked to a standstill.

The cortege from one funeral mingled with the procession from another, and they went by houses with the blinds drawn and curtains closed as the family inside prepared to bury their dead. At least six of the victims were Welsh, and male voice choirs solemnly sung hymns as they slowly processed through the streets.

In contrast, the hearses were literally flying. There was a shortage of them, and no sooner had they delivered one body to the cemetery than they had to dash back through the crowds to collect the next.

On Sunday, 19 bodies were interred in a large trench in Trimdon Grange cemetery. By 5pm on the Monday, when the last funeral concluded, the mass grave had been extended to accommodate 44 bodies. Twenty-six were buried down the road in Kelloe.

The Northern Echo: Trimdon Grange miners

The memorial in the cemetery at Trimdon Grange, and, below, the memorial at Kelloe

The Northern Echo: Durham memories - Kelloe - Trimdon Grange disaster memorial

"A young man, a victim of the explosion, was to have been married in a week or two, " reported the Echo. "The wedding ring was bought. The intended bride with her relative, while at the young man's funeral, and while the corpse was in the church, requested the minister to marry her to the deceased man. The minister, of course, refused. They said they had heard of it being done before. The minister said as the banns had not been published the marriage could not take place."

The Northern Echo: The famous wheel memorial was unveiled in 1982 by Arthur Scargill, the leader of the miners’ union. In 1989 Sedgefield MP Tony Blair launched a £10,000 campaign to restore it and the cemetery memorial. He is listening to the folk band Skerne

The wheel memorial was unveiled in 1982 by Arthur Scargill, the leader of the miners’ union. In 1989 Sedgefield MP Tony Blair launched a £10,000 campaign to restore it and the cemetery memorial. He is listening to the folk band Skerne playing Tommy Armstrong's song, the Trimdon Grange Disaster

Other stories emerged.

Dominic O'Donnel had been due to join the fated shift that Thursday but had been arrested by Sergeant Burrell in the pityard for non-payment of a fine. That afternoon, as the explosion killed his two marrers, he appeared before the county police court and, still unable to pay, was sent to prison for a month – plenty of time to contemplate what a lucky fellow he was.

Unlike another victim, a father of two, who was on his last shift before emigrating with his family to start a new life in the US.

The last human remains were recovered from the pit on Monday, February 20.

"This was the body of a Welsh miner, John Jones, 38, who has worked at the colliery for 12 months, " said the Echo. "This was known to be a fictitious name, assumed, it is supposed, to elude some police inquiry after him in Wales, from where he came."

To this day, his true identity remains unknown.

The Northern Echo: The Trimdon Grange pit memorial in Trimdon Village cemetery.

The last man died on Tuesday, February 21. He was furnaceman Peter Brown, 59, who had "suffered terribly" since being badly burned and breaking a leg.

In its report the following day of his death, the Echo said: "The remainder of the burials tool place yesterday afternoon. The village was very quiet yesterday and the great loss is felt very deeply, blinds being still down in most houses. The whole of the 11 horses killed have been got out and buried.

"Workmen are busy putting doors up to increase the ventilation and it is expected that the pit will resume work shortly."

It did – before the week was out.

On April 1, an inquiry heard that Trimdon Grange was a dusty pit which had to be watered every day. It was told that just a day before the explosion, there had been a heavy fall of goaf, or rock, from a roof in the Pit Narrow Board district, and so the roof had been re-propped.

This, it was said, had caused a "sudden squeeze" in the atmospheric conditions in the dusty mine.

On the surface, the atmospheric pressure had been falling for many days, which encouraged the squeezed air down below to move. Indeed, such was the squeeze that it forced some gas through the gauze around a miner's safety lamp. The gas then met the naked flame and ignited...

The coroner, TW Snagge, concluded that the Davy Lamp “affords no security whatever” in dusty mines like Trimdon Grange, and that is should be “absolutely prohibited”.

But he also concluded that the disaster was a tragic accident for which no one was to blame.

The Northern Echo: Durham memories - Tommy Armstrong, the pitman poet, who wrote about the Trimdon Grange explosion to raise funds for the families of the victims

Tommy Armstrong, the pitman poet

February left behind it
What will never be forgot;
Weeping widows, helpless children
May be found in many a cot…

In those days, there was no state help for those left behind. The Durham Miners’ Association would have assisted, but even it could not prevent widows from being evicted from their tied houses if they couldn’t pay the rent.

Within days, Tommy Armstrong, the pitman poet from Shotley Bridge, had produced one of his most enduring works, the Trimdon Grange Disaster, to a popular Victorian tune. Unusually, he wrote the words in normal English rather than pitmatic because he realised a disaster of this magnitude would awaken interest beyond the coalfield. All the proceeds from the sales of the song went to help the widows.

The song’s final verse is:

God protect the lonely widow
And raise each drooping head.
Be a father unto the orphans
Do not let them cry for bread.
Death will pay us all a visit,
They have only gone before.
And we will meet the Trimdon victims
Where explosions are no more.

The Northern Echo: