RARE medals awarded following a pit disaster which killed 204 people are going on display to mark the 150th anniversary of the accident.
On January 16, 1862, tragedy came to the small village of New Hartley, near Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, when an engine beam at Hester Pit broke and fell down the mine.
The only shaft of the pit became blocked by debris, trapping the workers inside.
By the time rescuers were able to get through by digging another shaft, some six days later, the miners had suffocated.
In all, 204 people died, including boys as young as 10. The disaster changed the industry forever, as a few months later, Parliament passed a new law requiring all collieries to have at least two shafts.
On May 20 that year, a social occasion was held to honour the Hartley “sinkers” – those workers and local residents who went down the mine to try and rescue those trapped underground.
In all, 38 medals were awarded, with a solitary gold given to local man William Coulson, who led the rescue operation, and 37 silver given to all who helped him. The medals bore the inscription: “Presented to those who risked their lives in attempting to save the lives of their fellow workers buried in Hartley Colliery, January 1862.”
In addition to the medals, rescuers were paid sums of between £4 and £30, depending on how many hours they dedicated to the operation.
Now, two of the silver medals are set to form the centrepiece of a display in the front window of Intercoin, at 103 Clayport Street in Newcastle, to mark the 150th anniversary of the tragedy. The coin and medal dealers acquired one from a descendant of one of the 37, around 20 years ago.
The man was emigrating and the shop promised him it would remain in the North East.
It has been on display in the shop window ever since. The second medal was acquired in the last 12 months from a retired man and local historian who saw the first on display and came into the shop.
The man held a Hartley medal in his private collection for many years and after talking to staff, sold it to the shop.
Alongside it, Intercoin acquired from him Memoirs of the Hartley Colliery Accident and Relief Fund, written by TE Forster and published in 1912, and a replica of a list of those awarded medals and how much they were paid.
All will be displayed in the shop window, in what Intercoin owner Brian Fagleman, who has been researching the medals and the disaster, believes is the first such public show to have taken place in the North East. He said: “It is hard to put a value on them, they are more of local interest than value. It has always been a topic of interest to people who look in the window and many people who pass by are able to relate to it.
“It must have been an horrific situation. These men were trapped down there, they could not get out. It is just an unbelievable story.”
In the future, Mr Fagleman plans to donate the medals to a museum in the area on the understanding that they are put on permanent display.
The shop owner, who worked in the museum service at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery from the late 1960s, is hoping to build up a record of how many of the silver medals are still in existence, believing some could have been destroyed, melted down or simply lost, and that this information has not been detailed elsewhere.
He is also eager for any information on whether the gold medal still exists and where it is, which the shop owner says is similarly not a matter of record.
Anyone who can help is asked to call Mr Fagleman at Intercoin on 0191 232 2064.
A SERIES of events are taking place this weekend to mark the 150th anniversary of the Hartley Pit disaster.
A special concert will be held at the New Hartley Memorial Hall, on St Michael’s Avenue, at 7pm on Saturday. It is being presented by folk group Beeswing.
On Sunday, there will be a church service at St Alban’s, in Earsdon, North Tyneside, at 11am. The programme will include performances by Backworth Colliery Band and St Alban’s Church Choir, as well as hymns and readings.
Another service has been organised at the New Hartley Memorial Hall at 4pm.
On Sunday evening, a concert will be held at the Whitley Bay Playhouse, at 7.30pm. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band, which played the soundtrack for the film Brassed Off, will perform at the event. Rev Andrew France, vicar of St Alban’s Church, commissioned a special piece of music to be premiered at the concert. The music is being composed by Martin Ellerby.
On Monday, a service will take place in the New Hartley memorial garden at the site of the pit at 11am.