Thursday, 1 August 2013

1860 Burradon Mining Disaster (Part 2) Heroes

Burradon Pit, situated six miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, suffered an underground explosion on the 2nd March 1860 killing seventy-six men and boys. It was suspected by the mineworkers that the pit had been unsafe for some time. They had campaigned, at some personal risk, to have their working conditions improved.

Burradon in 1860 was at the forefront, regionally, of the working men's struggle for better conditions. Part 1 was a summary of the events of the disaster, but this piece (part 2) is concerned with that struggle and the men who went the extra mile to bring about improvements.

It is a brief summary produced for the 150th anniversary commemoration event held in 2010 based on my short book The Burradon Mining Disaster 1860: A Detailed Account, 1996, Alan Fryer published in 1996:

Location of Burradon Colliery on Google Maps
1860 Burradon Disaster Heroes
On a glorious day in May 1859 a large crowd of Burradon mineworkers and their families gathered in a field at Burradon farm. They were assembled to hear the editor of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, J. Baxter Langley, address them on the subject of establishing a miners' provident association: an insurance scheme to compensate victims families in case of the all too frequent calamities which happened in mines. The mine owner was to be approached in supporting this. A reliance on charity was the degrading solution then in place for the bereaved.
 Click here for a Biography of Baxter Langley
Langley predicted that by the end of another 12 months a large number of the men and boys in front of him could be dead. It could be presumed that Burradon Colliery was considered unsafe.
Langley had been given an underground tour of the colliery. He was impressed, and maybe surprised, by the leading mineworkers' representatives of Burradon Colliery. He came to have a deep respect for these men: William Urwin, the secretary; George Maddox and William Alderson, amongst others. He wrote, "We talked of politics and social economics [in a way] which would have astonished Lord Shaftesbury and the Conservative members of the Coal Trade. We speak with a complete knowledge of the men employed in the Burradon pit when we say that, for integrity, generosity and general intelligence, we have never met with their superiors among any class of working-men".
It was the case that working-class men could not exercise much influence in their quest for better conditions. Baxter Langley was to use his influence, through his newspaper and owner the radical Joseph Cowen, to give the miners a much-needed voice.
Joseph Cowen
On March 2nd 1860, as foreseen, the pit fired killing seventy-six, including Urwin, Maddox and Alderson. Langley and Cowen were good to their word and took up the cause with vigour. A relief fund was set up. The relief fund committee was dominated by coal owners and the well-to-do, despite the fact that most of the donated cash had come from working men. The miners campaigned for Langley to be allowed to sit on this committee. This was successfully rejected. The working men were annoyed and donated money to Langley and the Chronicle directly for distribution to the victims.
A coroner's inquest was immediately established. Langley and Cowen engaged the services of a barrister from London to represent the mineworkers.
The inquest was not concluded until April 18th. It was often a bad tempered, and sometimes farcical, affair. The coroner, Stephen Reed, often struggled to maintain authority in his courtroom. This was especially so when trying to silence Baxter Langley's attempts to suggest questions to the miners' barrister. The coroner had many years' experience in dealing with such inquests into mining accidents. But on this occasion he was facing a greater challenge than he could have expected. He was probably out of his depth.
The inquest failed to reach a conclusive verdict and Stephen Reed came under heavy criticism. The Coroner because of this criticism of himself in the newspapers, felt compelled to have a constable of the County Police Force summon together the jury to give him a certificate stating that he had conducted the inquest with impartiality. They refused to do this. This disclosure was made public by Baxter Langley who was very critical of the waste of police time.
Pictured is Charles Carr the viewer and part-owner of Burradon Colliery in March 1860, the time of the terrible explosion which claimed the lives of seventy-six. This photograph was taken in 1862 at New Hartley Colliery during rescue efforts at the infamous disaster which killed over two hundred men and boys (There is a theory that this photo was staged at a slightly later time). Charles Carr was also the viewer of New Hartley in 1862. A deputation of men, after the New Hartley tragedy,  actually conveyed their commiserations to Carr on his double misfortune. But Roy Thompson, in his book "Thunder Underground", has the view that Charles Carr "walked on water", and I agree with him.

"Thunder Underground is a fascinating read which examines the politics surrounding the mine disasters investigated by by Northumberland coroner Stephen Reed between 1815 and 1865. It also gives biographical accounts of the main characters involved with Stephen Reed being examined in some detail. The book describes the mining operations in place at the time.

Lawyers for the mineworkers tried to prove culpability on the part of the owners of Burradon Colliery. This was in the hope of being awarded compensation for the families of the victims.

Despite hearing scientific evidence that the mine was not adequately ventilated, all safety measures available not employed and that Carr had misled the jury, a verdict of accidental death was recorded at the conclusion to the inquest. Was the verdict because of class unity or a pragmatic decision on the part of Stephen Reed, who realised that many men relied on the output of the colliery for their livelihood. It was recognised, however, that having financial interests in a mining operations was a conflict of interest in the safe management of collieries.

After March 1860 Carr's involvement in Burradon colliery diminished and as previously mentioned went on to suffer an even greater loss in 1862.
The senior supervisory figures of Burradon colliery were often uneasy witnesses at the inquest. They did state that they had instruction to take whatever measures at whatever the expense to ensure the safety of the colliery. It was clear, however, that some miners had been fearful of the pit's condition for some time. It was proved that the management had altered colliery plans before production to the inquest to show that the colliery ventilation was better managed than it really was.
Many aspects of mining safety and miners' living conditions had come under scrutiny in the couple of years preceding the disaster. It was to campaign for these issues and the adoption of the Miners' Provident Association Baxter Langley addressed an open-air meeting on the Newcastle Town Moor in June 1860. The Association was formed without the coal owners support. The meeting, however, was poorly attended and Langley voiced his disappointment at this. The leading mineworkers had all been killed in the disaster. The momentum and opportunity for change was largely lost. The status quo was resumed. Lives had been lost in vain. The importance of the Burradon Disaster was soon forgotten.

To read the full account see:
The Burradon Mining Disaster 1860: A Detailed Account, 1996, Alan Fryer

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