A contemporary account of the disaster has survived in a pamphlet of
‘The Liverpool Religious Tract Society’, entitled, ‘ Narrative of a Dreadful Occurrence at Felling Colliery (Nr. Durham)
25th May 1812.’
|"Felling is situated about a mile and half from Gateshead in the county of Durham. It contains several seams of coal. The present colliery is in the seam called the Lower Main. There are two shafts at the pit. One is called the John pit and is situated on the north side of the Sunderland Road, between felling Hall and the Toll Bar. It was about 200 yards deep. It is used for drawing up coal by means of a fire engine and is furnished with a whim worked by horses, which is useful when the fire engine is unemployed. The other shaft is called the William Pit. It is 350 yards from the John Pit and about 230 yards deep.
The mine was considered by the workmen as a model of perfection in the purity of its air and orderly arrangements. The concern wore the features of the greatest prosperity and, except for two others; there workmen being slightly burned, no accident had before occurred. Two shifts or sets of men were employed, twenty five acres of coal having been got. The establishment under the ground consisted of about 128 persons.
The subterraneous fire broke forth with two heavy discharges from the John Pit which were almost instantly followed by one from the William Pit. A slight trembling as if from an earthquake was felt for about half a mile round the workings and the noise of the explosion, though dull, was heard three or four miles distant and much resembled the unsteady fire of infantry. Immense quantities of dust and small coal accompanied these blasts and rose high into the air to form an inverted cone. The heaviest part of the matter ejected, such as corves, pieces of wood and small coal, fell near the pits but the dust, borne away on a strong west wind, fell in a continued shower from the pit to a distance of a mile and a half. In the village of Heworth it caused darkness like that of early twilight and covered the roads so thickly that footsteps of the passengers were strongly imprinted in it. The heads of both the shaft frames were blown off, their sides set on fire and their pulleys shattered into pieces but the pulleys of the John Pit gin, being on a crane not within the influence of the blast, were fortunately preserved. The coal dust ejected from the William Pit into the drift or horizontal part of the tube (i.e. the passage between the pit and the chimney stalk) was about three inches thick and soon burnt to a light cinder.
As soon as the explosion was heard, the wives and children of the men ran to the working pit. Wildness and terror were pictured on every countenance. The crowds from all sides collected to the number of several thousand, some crying out for a husband, a parent or a son and all deeply afflicted with a mixture of grief and horror.
The machine being rendered useless by the eruption, the rope of a gin was sent down the pit with all expedition. A number of men seemed to supply strength proportionate to the urgency of the occasion, put their shoulders to the shaft of the gin and wrought it with astonishing expedition. By twelve o’clock, thirty two persons, all that survived of this dreadful calamity, were brought up. The dead bodies of two boys, who were miserable, scorched and shattered, were also brought out of the pit at this time. Three boys out of the thirty two who escaped alive, died within a few hours of the accident, so that twenty nine persons remained to relate what they had observed of the appearances and effects of the subterraneous thundering. One hundred and twenty one were in the mine when it happened, and eighty seven remained in the workings. Eight persons had come up on different occasions within a short time before the explosion.
They who had their friends restored, hastened with them from the dismal scene and seemed to suffer as much from excess of joy as they lately had done from grief. And they, who were yet held in doubt concerning the fate of their relations and friends, filled the air with shrieks and howling, went about wringing their hands and threw their bodied into the most extravagant gestures.
Great apprehension being entertained for the safety of the workmen who remained in the mine, nine persons descended the John Pit, expecting to meet with some of them alive but their progress towards the place where the men had been working was very soon stopped by the prevalence of choke damp. Firedamp will take fire at a candle, in choke one will not burn at all. In order to prevent the former steel mills were used to give light by turning a thin cylinder of steel against a piece of flint but on coming into choke damp, the sparks fell like dark drops of blood so that the mill became useless and breathing extremely difficult.
The probability of their getting to those they were in search of, or finding any of them alive in case they should reach them, was now despaired of.
The certainty of the mine being on fire and the probability of a second explosion burying them in its ruins, rendered the case altogether hopeless.