Blast from the past

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Neil DeMarco outlines a key stage 3 activity based on an early 19th-century mining disaster

Felling colliery was near Gateshead in Durham. At 11.30am on May 25, 1812 a tremendous underground explosion rocked the mine. The tremors were felt a kilometre away and the noise was heard as far as six kilometres. Two blasts shot up each of the 200-metre deep shafts, shutting out the sunlight with coal dust and showering the surrounding area with fragments of timber, coal and baskets. The blasts had destroyed most of the winding equipment that lowered and raised the miners.

But a horse-gin (horse-powered winding gear) was undamaged and was brought into place over the shaft. No horses were available, so several men pushed the gin around to operate the winding gear so as not to lose any time. Rescuers were lowered to the bottom of the shaft, where they found survivors amid the wreckage. By 12 noon, 33 miners had been brought out of the pit alive. Three of these, all children, died within a few hours. Only 30 miners survived and 16 of these were hewers.

Rescue parties tried to get further into the mine, but were beaten back by chokedamp - a gas produced after another gas, fire-damp, is exploded.Choke-damp killed three times more miners than the explosion.

Wives and mothers of miners caught in the explosion waited anxiously all night at the two entrances to the mine, hoping to hear the voices of their husbands and sons calling for help. The voices never came. On May 27 the rescuers decided to seal the mine to starve it of air. This would put out the fires, which had continued to rage in the shafts since the explosion.

Recovering the dead The rescuers didn't enter the mine until July 8, when the unpleasant task of identifying the rotting bodies began. Ninety-two miners were killed and the rescuers worked through until September 19. The youngest victims were two eight-year-old two trappers. All the bodies were eventually recovered except one, which was never found.

The force of the explosion of fire-damp mutilated many of the bodies. But most were killed by breathing in the foul choke-damp that followed the explosion. The advanced state of decay of the bodies meant wives and mothers could identify them only by any personal possessions found with them.

The Relief Fund The widows and mothers of the dead miners were now in a terrible situation. The women could be put into the poor house if they could not support their children. The children could be separated and sent to work in factories or even other mines. A relief fund was quickly set up. By the end of 1812 it had raised Pounds 2,806 - at a time when a miner might earn about Pounds 50 a year.

The lesson is based on an information booklet by David Hawthorne produced by Buckinghamshire County Education Department. Details from IT adviser Dodie Hodgkinson.Tel: 01296 383376l Neil DeMarco is head of history at a school in Buckinghamshire. He is series editor for Hodder's '20th-century History' and is working on a key stage 3 textbook on Britain 1750-1900, to be published by Hodder

* PUTTERS pushed, pulled or carried the coal in small carts containing several baskets of coal.

* WAGON DRIVERS drove the horse wagons that carried the coal to the bottom of the shaft before it was lifted by the winding gear.

* DEPUTIES maintained the mine by checking or putting in place the timber props that supported the roofs of the passageways. Deputies also had the job of setting alight pockets of gas with a naked flame on the end of a long pole!

* HEWERS cut the coal away from the coal face with pick axes.

* TRAPPERS opened and shut trap doors to force fresh air through those parts of the mine being worked. Trapping didn't need much strength.


1 (a) Look at Source A. What job was done by older miners?(b) Why did they do this job and not children?

2 (a) What job was done by the youngest children?(b) Why do you think children did this job?

3 Look at Source B. According to the graph, which type of miners were: (a) most likely, and (b) least likely to be killed in the explosion?Give reasons for your answers.

4 "More hewers were killed than any other type of miner. This proves that hewers had the most dangerous job." Explain why you agree or disagree with all or part of this statement.

5 Write 15-20 lines setting out your proposals formaking sure accidents like this don't happen again. Ask yourself:

* What might have set off the explosion in the first place?

- what methods did miners use to light up the shafts at this time?

- how could this be made safer?

* How might ventilation of the mines be improved and how might such a measure help limit the number of casualties?

* Should Parliament pass laws to improve safety standards in mines and to stop children being used as miners?


1 (a)Hewing(b) because it required more physical strength than other jobs usually done by children.

2 (a) Trapping(b) because little physical strength was needed to open and shut the doors.

3 (a) Level 1: Putters - without developmentexplanationLevel 2: a much higher proportion of putters (2830) were killed than for any other job.(b)Level 1: Deputies - without development or explanation.Level 2: lowest proportion of those killed was for deputies (15).

4 Level 1: Agrees, with basic reasoning offered - 34hewers were killed. This was more than for any other type of miner so it must have been the most dangerous job.Level 2: Disagrees, pointing out that other types of miner suffered proportionately higher death rates.Level 3: as for L2 plus precise evidence offered from sources or text i.e. more than half the miners (1630) who survived were hewers; more than 90 per cent of putters were killed against 68 per cent of hewers.

The focus of this activity is on national curriculum Key Elements 4 and 5, investigation of a topic using source material, the evaluation of these sources in response to particular questions, and the communication of historical understanding and knowledge

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