Felling Mine Disaster

On the 25th of May, 1812, an explosion occurred at Brandling Main, of Felling Colliery, near Gateshead-on-Tyne, which was attended with a more appalling loss of life than any like calamity that had ever taken place in the annals of coal-mining.

Ninety-two men and boys were destroyed by the blast. This great loss of life was occasioned by the disaster happening at a most inauspicious moment. It is the commons custom in the North of England to work the collieries with two shifts or sets of men, and for several reasons it is made a rule that the men of the first remain at their working-places until relieved by the arrival of the men of the second shift. Hence, during a short space of time, both sets of men are in the mine at the same moment, and this unfortunately the case when the above-mentioned explosion took place. Out of one hundred and twenty-one persons who had entered the mine, only thirty-two escaped alive, three of whom died within a few hours after the accident.

We learn from early records that there were several strata of coal in Felling Manor, and that coal was wrought early in the seventeenth century. Felling Colliery, which is one of the oldest in Durham, was sunk to the High Main about the year 1779, a depth of 127 fathoms, the Low Main being opened in 1810. At present there are sour seams being worked, the Bensham or Maudlin in two sections, the top section being 76 fathoms from the surface, the lower one being 88 fathoms, having an average thickness of 2 feet 9 inches. The Low Main is met at a depth of 94 fathoms, and is 3 feet thick, and the Hutton seam, which is about worked out, is 101 fathoms from the surface, and has a thickness of 5 feet. This mine is ventilated by means of furnace underground, at the foot of an upcast, 756 feet deep and 8 feet 8 inches drain ; the downcast is 606 feet deep, and 7 feet 10 inches drain. There are 685 men and boys employed in and about the colliery, and the daily output amounts to about 720 tons. At this colliery there occurred a terrible explosion in May 1812, which was attended by great loss of life and damage. At the time of the explosion there were 128 men in the pit, out of which number 91 met their death.

Felling Colliery, also known as the John Pit, was certainly established well before the 19th century and before the first Ordnance Survey maps appeared in 1858. The pit closed in arch 1931 and is shown on the 1939 O.S. map as ‘disused’. The Low Main was a depth of 612 feet, one of the deepest in the area at the time.

It was at this colliery that the disaster of 1812 took place. At 11.30 a.m. on 25th May 1812, there was an explosion in the John Pit which killed 92 men and boys, three quarters of the mine’s workforce. Their ages were between 8 and 65 years. 43 were aged18 or under. Debris and coal dust covered the roads so thickly that footprints were visible and the noise of the explosion could be heard from as far away as Sunderland.

The disaster led to the formation of the Sunderland Society for the Prevention of Accidents, at the instigation of Rev. John Hodgson, the Vicar of Jarrow and Heworth. Within 3 years, safety lamps were introduced, having been developed independently by Humphrey Davy and George Stephenson.

A plain obelisk, commemorating the dead, stands near the west gate of Heworth churchyard.