“Some of the dead had died with a smile on their faces, others frowning in terror or anger. Some were fresh and pure as the day upon which they left god’s blessed light, never to be returned to it again in life. On others the hand of the corrupter had been planted, and already dust was returning to its native dust. They were strong men of gigantic mould, still apparently engaged in a deadly struggle with the last adversary and there were children - weak and helpless, ever doomed to toil in everlasting darkness - clasped in the arms of loving fathers, who even in their extremity remembered those whom they had begotten” - Wemyss Reid, 1862
2012 has been a year of anniversaries for the workers’ movement too numerous to list, but including a number of mining disasters. Not least of these was the bicentenary of the Felling disaster near Gateshead, when 92 men and boys were blown to kingdom come and had any chance of survival snuffed out by the rich and powerful coal-owning Brandlings, who sealed the shafts with granite slabs to extinguish the flames and save the coal seams - the poor lads, some as young as eight, along with their dads and granddads, were collateral damage.
2012 also marks the 150th anniversary of the Hartley disaster - the first of many huge pit calamities of the Victorian era - and Still the sea rolls on gives the Hartley community the chance to reflect on the legacy of that fateful day in 1862, to add their words, their reflections in prose and poetry. Some of the contributions are from the period, others are newly drafted.
The absence of a second vital shaft was one of the deadly ingredients of the disaster. Though miners since the days of the early unions a generation earlier, as well as contemporary mines inspectors, had demanded that each mine must have two shafts, this had not passed into law. A second shaft, they were told, would cost a prohibitive £300. Another ingredient was the massive pumping engine perched over the shaft. It worked continuously, night and day, to keep the lower levels of the mine free of water. The engine’s beam, huge and heavy, was made of cast iron, not wrought iron. The third ingredient in the mix that day was the fact that the afternoon shift had descended the mine, and the day shift had not yet ascended. Sons joined fathers and grandfathers, uncles, brothers and cousins, into the mine; whole generations of families toiled together. At the fatal moment, the mighty beam - 42 tons of it - snapped at the point of maximum stress, sending half of it down 600 feet of shaft, and sealing 204 men and boys beneath.
Everyone round the world watched the unfolding fate of the trapped Chilean miners in 2010, and similarly this disaster touched the living rooms of Britain 150 years ago. The men were still clearly alive: they could be heard, working, digging, trying to clear a way through. Miners from around the region volunteered to help: 50 of them worked night and day. Hanging like acrobats upside-down in the shaft, suspended by ropes, deluged in water and rubble, they dug and hewed to make a hole just big enough to squeeze the men out.
But a wicked further twist of fate was seeping into the shaft area. Without ventilation, black damp, which clings to the floor, was creeping silently around the trapped men. It drained their strength, the youngest giving out first - the boys of 10 and 12 lying in their father’s arms - then the strongest. The sound of pick and pinch bar fell away. When the men from the surface broke a small hole into the shaft, a blast of foul air nearly overcame them and they had to be pulled up to the surface.
For seven days, the volunteers worked on, the papers carrying daily updates. At the surface the miners’ wives, mothers, sweethearts and sisters braved all weathers and refused to move from the spot, keeping their resigned vigil - a sight all too common at pitheads around the country. Three survivors were brought up, one of whom had hung on by the toes of his boots to the edge of a stricken cage for many hours in the dark in unbearable pain. At length the rescuers were able to announce that all were dead and, pitifully, the bodies of adults and children were hauled up from the pit one at a time, 204 of them in all. They were buried in a mass grave.
The disaster won us miners the legal obligation for all pits to have two shafts. It further won us the right to appoint independent workmen’s inspectors to report back on conditions - such was the distrust for owners and government inspectors alike.
Hartley was far from the last such disaster, though. Four years later, the worse ever English mine disaster killed 388 at the Oaks Colliery in Barnsley. Then at Blantyre Colliery in Lanarkshire an explosion killed 207 in 1877. Explosions also resulted in the death of 200 at Wood Pit in Lancashire (1878), 272 at Prince of Wales colliery in Monmouthshire (1878) and 290 at Albion Colliery, Glamorgan (1894). With the advent of nationalisation in 1946 we thought we had put the dark days of fatal explosions behind us, only for 81 to be struck down at Easington, Co Durham in 1951.
Still the sea rolls on comes with contemporary illustrations, such as those from London Illustrated News, which had artists and journalist on site throughout and whose editions were snapped up as they came off the press.
Fight to the finish is a tribute to a man and his principles - one of the now fast disappearing army of union pitmen. The opening pages of this little volume are penned by the author’s daughter, Heather Wood, but the rest is the work of Gordon himself - the poems and prose which were discovered after he died, for few knew he was writer during his life.
Gordon was four months old when his dad, aged 27, was killed at Shotton pit. His mother told him how his body was delivered to the back door in a wheelbarrow, still black and bloodied from the pit. His dinner was in the oven and the table set for his meal, but that same table was cleared, so that his family could bathe his body.
When Gordon was 11, World War II began and the area where he lived was frequently bombed. At 18 he was called up for ‘national service’ and was sent off to Burma to fight ‘the communists’, who, it seems, had the audacity to want to govern their own country. This was some baptism of fire, and amid the flying bullets he wondered if he would ever see home again.
On his return he signed on for what was to become a lifetime at the pit. In later years, as his generation of miners swung broadside on to challenge Tory policies and governments, the press declared that he and his fellow miners were thugs, traitors, enemies within. It forced him to reflect long and hard on his years of service to the flag, when he laid his life on the line ‘for queen and country’.
The warmest parts of this book for me are his reflections of childhood incidents, like finding a two bob bit - 24 pennies. This was a small fortune, which he ought to have handed over to his mam, struggling to make ends meet: “Have you ever tried explaining away something to your mother with a king-sized bull’s eye gobstopper in your mouth, five Woodbines sticking out of your ganzy and a large ice cream stain on the front of it?”
The poems are full of commitment to the miners and the working class. There are odes against Thatcher and the ruling class past and present. It may not be great poetry, but it is part of an ever more voluminous mountain of writing by ordinary men and women who lived through the decade of miners’ struggle from 1983 to 1993, every page of which gives the lie to press tales of reluctant strikers and automatons following orders blindly. It adds another dash of colour to the mosaic of coalfield struggles during that time.
Those who base their understanding of this period on dry statistics and the work of well-heeled academics would do well to read this book. Little of the rest will make sense unless they do.