These fractured pieces of oak once formed a bunton or support for a series of water pumps in the Hartley Colliery. In 1862 however, a beam supporting the pump cracked and this bunton fell over 90 feet from the top of the mine building and down the 12 foot wide mine shaft. It smashed a lift cage to pieces, killing three men instantly. More devastating was the general blockage caused by this object in the shaft itself. 20 tonnes of debris sealed the opening, entombing the 199 men and boys below ground. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning over the next few days.
Miners from surrounding collieries assisted in the rescue. It took six days to clear the blocked shaft, and the “gas and stench” emanating from the pit was at times so strong (according to one eye-witness) that the rescuers were severely hampered in their labours.
Two-by-two the bodies were brought to the surface and quietly laid out on the iron platform, a white sheet spread for each, and from there they were placed in open coffins filled with wood shavings – “their bodies [were] stiff, their legs bent, their hands blanched and withered… faces were ghastly pale and streaked with livid red.” “One young man was recognised by his father, who was deeply moved, and as a last consolation, he stroked his hand gently over the face of his dead son before the body was put into the coffin.”
Woodhorn Museum has many artefacts associated with the Hartley Pit Disaster; this is the first of a series of posts on the subject on our Object in Focus page.
This artefact can be view by appointment at Woodhorn Museum. For more information about our collections, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org