ON April 13, 1896, an explosion of extraordinary force tore through the narrow, dark, dusty channels deep in the bowels of County Durham. Everything in its path was destroyed.

“Huge balks of timber were splintered to matchwood, coal trucks were smashed to atoms and even the couplings snapped, while great falls of roof were apparent,” said The Northern Echo’s reporter who peered down the shaft of Brancepeth Colliery, near the pit village of Willington.

The Northern Echo: Willington pit disaster, April 13, 1896.

An Edwardian postcard of Brancepeth Colliery

Against such forces, the human body stood no chance. In graphic detail, the Echo told how 20 men and boys were killed, some literally blown to bits by the blast; others scorched skinless by the fireball while some were crushed almost formless by the rockfall.

The Colliery Guardian newspaper said: “The disaster cast a gloom over the county but at the same time, it gave another proof, if one were needed, of the fact that the hours of trial and difficulty as by noble heroism can be displayed by Durham Englishmen as by any soldier on the field of battle.”

The Northern Echo: TRIBUTE: The memorial plaque commemorating the 20 men and boys who died in the Brancepeth Colliery pit disaster has been rehoused at Beamish Museum.

Just as the names of the fallen in a war are recorded on a memorial, so the names of those who died in the Brancepeth disaster were placed on a marble plaque (above) that was mounted in the colliery offices. In 1928, the plaque was transferred to the new Brancepeth Colliery Welfare Institute in Willington (below), which the miners had built as their social centre, each contributing 4d a week for its upkeep from their wages.

The Northern Echo: Willington pit disaster, April 13, 1896.

On April 12, 2022, just a few hours shy of the 126th anniversary of the disaster, fire ripped through the Welfare Institute, destroying the derelict building.


Fortunately, the plaque had been removed five years earlier by concerned local people but the fire has robbed this small mining town of its last physical connection to the industry it was built upon.

The Northern Echo: Aerial images of the devastating fire at the old Miners' Welfare Club in Willington. Picture:  IAN DAVISON.

The Welfare on fire last week. Picture: Ian Davison

“The Welfare” had been central to the miners’ lives. When it opened in 1928, it had a dance hall and a billiard hall, plus games, smoking and reading rooms, while outside there were flowerbeds and topiary displays, two tennis courts, a children’s playground, a pavilion and a bowling green. In the days before councils provided leisure centres, here were the miners clubbing together to create their own social centre.

The Northern Echo: Willington Welfare

Miners playing bowls at the Welfare

Indeed, for many in Willington, the Welfare was their whole life: as children, they watched their parents pay their weekly subs; as teenagers, they attended their first dances there and perhaps met their partners there which inevitably led to them holding their wedding receptions there. They gathered there to march behind the Brancepeth Colliery Band to the station on the day of the annual Big Meet; they listened with pride as the BBC put Willington on the map, broadcasting concerts from the Welfare.

And, as they grew old, the Welfare was their deaths, too: wakes were held there.

The Northern Echo: Willington Welfare

Brancepeth Colliery band which met at the Welfare

Brancepeth Colliery had been sunk in 1840, and grew into one of the biggest in the county, employing more than 2,000 men for most of the 20th Century. When it closed in 1967, at least 1,000 jobs disappeared almost over night, with many men moving to other coalfields for work. The way of life which revolved around the Welfare also began to be lost.

The Northern Echo: George Nairn mining postcards.

In 1982, the miners gifted the Welfare to the local council on the condition that it be for the recreational use of the local inhabitants “without distinction of political or religious beliefs or other opinions with the object of improving the conditions of life for the said inhabitants”.

It became part of Wear Valley council’s Spectrum leisure complex, which in 1987 was augmented by a 70-metre dry ski slope. Incredibly, the ski slope was opened by Franz Klammer, the former world champion and Olympic gold medallist alpine skier who dominated his sport in the mid 1970s. He was so taken by Willington that he returned for another demonstration in 1989.

But things soon went downhill for the leisure complex which the council couldn’t make pay. The old Welfare was shut in 1999 and the slope was closed in 2002, although the efforts of the community saved the Spectrum itself, which is now successfully run by a trust.

The Northern Echo: Miners Welfare Hall, Willington.

But the Welfare was boarded up and derelict (below). Even the wildly bumpy BMX track which covered the perfectly flat lawns on which the miners had once played bowls became overgrown by weeds.

Fortunately a spirited campaign managed to extricate the memorial plaque in 2016, and it was moved safely to the band hall at Beamish museum.

It was just in the nick of time. Now the Welfare has gone up in flames, Willington has lost its last mining building, so the plaque is a rare direct connection to the days, and the sacrifices, of the miners.

The Northern Echo: The Willington Welfare on Wednesday, after the fire. Picture: Nigel Linge

The remains of the Welfare on Wednesday

With thanks for information and pictures to Ken and Nigel Linge, and their mother, Olive, who was instrumental in saving the plaque