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Plain Pit, Rainton Colliery, and the Two Explosions - Page 2

Taken From A Paper Written By Alan Vickers

The Explosions

On 18th December, 1817 there was an explosion by which twenty-seven were killed (eleven men and sixteen boys).  The Durham Advertiser reported that :

‘The blast occurred before all the men had descended.  Had it occurred a little later there would have been 160 men and boys in the pit.  Early reports of the total number of lives lost amounted to twenty-six, and those principally boys.  The explosion took place at 3 o’clock in the morning, before the hewers had descended the pit and from this circumstance about 160 lives have been preserved.  Every exertion was made to render assistance to those in the mine and two men fell having been suffocated by the impure state of the air.  The pit in which the accident occurred, was always considered to be quite free from explosive matter and in consequence of this supposed security the safety lamps had never been introduced into it the miners continuing to work by the light of candles.’ 

Those Who Died:-
Of the 27 who were killed in the explosion the following 23 were buried in St Michael’s Churchyard,
Houghton le Spring :

Address. Buried.
Charles Bailey
Cross Fines Row 21st December 1817
Harrison Barras
Cross Fines Row 21st December 1817
Thomas Barras
Cross Fines Row 21st December 1817
John Blanchard
West Rainton 21st December 1817
Phillip Bolam
Collier Row 20th December 1817
William Clark
West Rainton 20th December 1817
William Cowell
Cross Fines Row 25th December 1817
Robert Gowland
Cross Fines Row 21st December 1917
George Greaveson
The Knott 20th December 1817
Thomas Greaveson
The Knott 20th December 1817
Thomas Holmes
Collier Row 20th December 1817
George Holt
The Knott 20th December 1817
Cuthbert Holt
The Knott 20th December 1817
Robert Langley
Meadows 20th December 1817
Joseph Mason
Cross Fines Row 21st December 1817
Edward Oxley
Collier Row 20th December 1817
James Race
West Rainton 21st December 1817
John Douglas Reed
Hetton 20th December 1817
John Robinson
Cross Fines Row 20th December 1817
John Taylor
Cross Fines Row 20th December 1817
John Watson
Wilsons Row 21st December 1817
Stephen Wilson
Rainton Gate 20th December 1817
Joseph Wilson
Cross Fines Row 21st December 1817

Four other victims were buried at St. Mary and St. Cuthbert’s Church, Chester le Street :-

John Colling 23 Houghton le Spring 20th December 1917
John Colling 35 Houghton le Spring 29th December 1817
Thomas Colling 40 Houghton le Spring 20th December 1817
William Colling 47 Houghton le Spring 20th December 1817

Analysing the ages it will be seen that:-

    2 were aged 10 or under
12 were aged between 11 and 20
  4 were aged between 21 to 30
  4 were aged between 31 to 40
  3 were aged between 41 to 50
  2 were aged between 51 and 60

Analysing the addresses:-


9 lived at Cross Fines Row
3 lived at West Rainton
3 lived at Collier Row
4 lived at The Knott
1 lived at Meadows
1 lived at Hetton
1 lived at Wilson’s Row
1 lived at Rainton Gate
4 lived at Houghton le Spring

The 1818 valuation of the pit.

An interesting notebook covering the period January 1823 to October 1827, kept by John Robson, Underground Manager at Rainton Colliery, provided much valuable information on a period of active development of the colliery.  This notebook was used as the basis of an article by John Goodchild and from this some information was extracted for Plain Pit.  The notebook supplements the information held in the Londonderry papers.   

In John Robson’s valuation for 1818 there were :-

5  hewer’s mauls,  3  shovels,  2 rakes, 3 crackets,  10 wedges,  2  sets of drills. 

This suggests that at that time the pit was operating more or less on ‘a care and maintenance basis’.
Underground stowage of coal was begun at the beginning of 1823, and the direction of air in the pit was changed in May 1823, losses of air at doors and at stoppings having been considerable prior to that date.

The 1823 Explosion.

On Monday 3rd November, 1823, at approximately 6.00 a.m. there was an even greater explosion at Plain Pit.

Sykes Local Records for Northumberland and Durham states the number killed as fifty-nine - fifty-three men and six boys, but a report in the York Courant stated that fifty-five were killed in the explosion and two died later which made a total of fifty-seven men and boys. 

Of the eighteen horses that were in the pit, twelve were killed, and of the others, three were in the workings and three in the stables and they escaped unhurt.

The inquest into the disaster was held before Peter Bowley, Coroner of the Easington Ward, and a jury, on the body of Thomas Golightly and the others. 

Nicholas Dixon, collier, descended the pit on Sunday evening and remained there until two hours before the explosion and he told the court that the air was good all the time.  He had examined the air course and found it all right and the doors were in proper order.

Richard Cole, on-setter, descended the pit about 3 o’clock on that Monday morning.  He was employed to attach corves to the chain of the rope from the pit from that time until about 6 o’clock when the explosion took place.  A short time before the accident, three boys named Johnson, Lowton and Robinson came to the shaft and told Cole that the Davy lamps were ‘standing on fire.’  After about one minute, an explosion took place, followed immediately by a second blast and smoke and fire ascended the shaft.  Cole told the court that he was stupefied by the blast.  The first shock threw him down  but he was back on his legs when the second came.  He washed his mouth which revived him and he and several other men and boys were able to ascend the pit by means of the rope which brought down the empty corves.

An early Davy Lamp

It was reported that one of the survivors made his way to the shaft and took hold of the rope which would take him to the surface.  Just as he was about to go up, he saw a small boy within his reach and almost overcome by the after-damp.  He grabbed him by his collar and held on to him until they reached the surface.
It was supposed that the accident was caused by an overman going through a ventilation door into an explosive mixture and he either dropped his heated lamp on some hay or had blown the flame through the gauze in trying to extinguish it.

After hearing all the evidence the Coroner summed up and the jury brought in a verdict of ‘Accidental death.’  

Nine of the victims were interred at Houghton-le-Spring on Tuesday and on the following day a further thirty-five were buried.  Eight were buried at Penshaw and three others at Chester-le-Street.   Thomas Adamson and William Hutchinson, who were brought out of the pit alive, died on Wednesday and were buried on Thursday.

The furnace was re-lit some days after the explosion and the coals in the South East district of the pit had started to be worked again in September 1824, the district having laid idle since the explosion.

Those Who Died

Some time after 1824 a furnace was built in the Hutton seam at the nearby Nicholson’s Pit to draw air through the Plain Pit, and an eight feet diameter chimney was built to provide even better draught.  Nicholson’s Pit thereby became an upcast shaft.       

New tubbing 10 feet in height, with 20 feet of wall set in cement above it was put in the shaft of Plain Pit in 1824.  It is possible that this was to repair damage caused by the explosion.

In August 1825, a new system of ventilating the exhausted coal areas or ‘wastes’ was introduced.  This was done in a chain, which included Nicholson’s Pit, Plain Pit, Meadows West Pit (approximately NZ 324 477 opened between 1821 and 1824) and Dunwell Pit (NZ 338 481). 
It is recorded that in June 1826 the first, or North East district of Plain Pit was worked again but a few weeks later, in July 1826, working at the whole pit was abandoned but this must have been for only a short period as it is recorded that it was abandoned again in January 1827.  At that time the other Rainton pits were able to supply the vend with the Plain Pit’s men divided between them. 

Records of three fatal accidents have been identified :

  • In c1822 a man named Cross was killed after falling down the pit shaft. 
  • On 9th October 1863, Thomas Gibson, age 37, a Deputy at Plain Pit, was killed as a result of a fall of stone whilst he was setting timber supports. 
  • On 12th June 1867, John Thompson, age 16, an Apparatus Boy at Plain Pit, was killed after being crushed by the apparatus tub when the chain broke.