When tragedy struck down the pit

Chris Cordner
Chris Cordner
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THE Mail’s head of features CHRIS CORDNER has spent time tracing his family history, and discovering what is on offer for anyone with an interest in geneaology.

In his latest feature, Chris learns how his family was touched by tragedy.


HISTORY does not always yield good news.

In fact, my family’s past shows tragedy struck in the late 1880s.

John Defty was a great great grandfather on my father’s side.

He was a 32-year-old who was making his way in the world, in the County Durham mining community of Kimblesworth.

He worked as a master shifter at the village pit. It was a hugely responsible job. He was in charge of the men who repaired the horseways and other passages in the mine.

But fate dealt a cruel blow on August 16, 1885.

John was working in a cage perched 250ft above the bottom of a pit shift.

Perilously, the cage was suspended on a crab rope.

Tragically, the rope broke while John and two other men, Richard Carr, 38, and Thomas Carr, 35, were repairing the mine shaft.

All three men plunged to the bottom of the pit and to their deaths. Yet tragedy was a common occurrence in the pits of the 1800s.

Billy Middleton is the spokesman for the Spennymoor-based Durham Mining Museum. It holds details of all the tragedies in North-East mines down the years.

He told me more about the horrendous working conditions in the pits of County Durham in the 1800s.

“It was only in 1842 that they stopped women and children aged under ten from working in the pits.

“Records often show that children died in the pits.”

He said another example was a mining disaster at Thornley Colliery on August 5, 1841.

Of the nine people killed in a gas explosion, eight were aged 17 and under.

“The conditions were horrendous. If there was an explosion or an accident, the first thing that a colliery owner would ask would be ‘were there any ponies killed?’ They were more important.”

The Kimblesworth tragedy left my great great grandfather John’s wife Margaret as a 31-year-old widow with two daughters, a son and a granddaughter to bring up on her own.

l Next in our series of articles – how an 1800s widow coped on her own.

Are you an avid geneaologist?

Would you like to share your fascinating findings with the Mail.

Give us a call and let us more about your own personal look into history.

Contact Chris Cordner by writing to him at New Clarence House, Wesley Square, Hartlepool, TS24 8BX, via email to chris.cordner@northeast-press.co.uk or by calling (01429) 239377.