Deaths and dispute: Dark days for King Coal

Flying pickets at Seaham Colliery March 1984.
Flying pickets at Seaham Colliery March 1984.

A BITTER dispute which set father against son is at the centre of a new exhibition. Today we find out more.

A CHURCH with links to an East Durham pit disaster is to host an exhibition marking the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike.

Dawdon pickets November 1984.

Dawdon pickets November 1984.

Vintage photos of North East pitmen during the bitter year-long struggle – many from the Echo’s archives – will go on show at St Thomas’ Church in Newcastle this Saturday.

A room at the church will also be named after mining engineer Herman Carl Schier, who died leading a rescue attempt following an explosion at Trimdon Grange Colliery in 1882.

“St Thomas’ Church is not in a pit community but the strike affected our whole society,” said Jonathan Adams, organiser of the Deep Coal, Deep Community exhibition.

“Under the church runs the Victoria Tunnel, which was dug in 1842 to carry coal from the Leazes Main Colliery to the Ouseburn for shipping out of the Tyne.

“And hidden in the church vestry for generations has been a memorial to mining engineer Herman, who was born in Newcastle and aged just 23 when he was killed.

“We intend to make sure his brave sacrifice in February 1882 is properly marked, at last, by naming a room after him during the official opening of our exhibition at the weekend.”

Father was set against son, neighbour against neighbour and child against classmate as miners downed tools nationwide in March 1984 to fight for their futures.

Today, a full three decades on, all the pits of old County Durham have gone. Parks, houses and even a football stadium now stand where men once toiled underground.

“The miners’ strike was one of the most bitter industrial disputes Britain has ever seen,” said Jonathan. “It involved hardship and violence as communities fought to retain their pits.”

It was a statement by National Coal Board head Ian MacGregor which sparked the first unrest – when he announced plans to close 20 pits, with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

The move, it was claimed, had been made to “rationalise government subsidisation of the industry,” but it left the North East’s mining communities facing savage cuts.

“The hardest-hit pits will be Horden, which will lose 500 of its 1,300 men, and Murton and Eppleton, where 200 jobs will go,” reported the Echo at the time.

“Other pits under threat include Herrington. The NCB has said that, since unions have rejected its proposals for reduced capacity, the colliery will have to close.”

The news sparked widespread fears and action was immediate. As men downed tools, so miners’ leader Arthur Scargill called for a national strike against pit closures on March 12.

Miners in Yorkshire and Kent were the first to strike, followed by Scotland, South Wales and Durham. Britain was to witness a fierce, hard-fought year-long battle.

But by January 1985, it was beginning to disintegrate as miners facing financial hardship started to return to work. Finally, on March 3, the strike was officially ended by a vote.

Miners returned to work defeated, but not broken, as they defiantly walked behind colliery bands and lodge banners, and alongside the women and children who had supported them.

Photographs of that tough time, including scenes from Wearmouth, Murton and Easington pits, will provide a focal point of the new exhibition. Local pit banners will also be on show.

The exhibition will be officially opened at 5.30pm on Saturday, with Dunston Silver Band performing at 6pm, followed by songs and speeches. It opens to the public on November 17.

“We are not just marking a bitter confrontation in the 1984-5 strike, we are also marking bravery and the deep community which grew where people shared hardship and risk in the mining industry which was a foundation of the life of North East England,” said Jonathan.

•The exhibition Deep Coal – Deep Community: 30 years on from the Miners’ Strike will run from November 17 to December 13. It is open Monday to Saturday from 10am and 4pm.

Terrible disaster: 68 men and boys killed in pit blast

A GENERATION of men and boys perished when an explosion ripped through Trimdon Grange Colliery on February 16, 1882.

It had been business as usual in the Walter Scott Ltd-owned pit that Thursday, with hundreds of men toiling in the “dusty mine”.

But, at about 2.30pm, a huge blast shook the pit. As the dust and debris settled, 68 men and boys were found dead. A further five rescuers – including Herman Carl Schier – perished too. More than 70 men, however, were rescued. Sadly, furnaceman Peter Brown, 59, died of his injuries after being pulled to safety.

An official report found the explosion had originated in the Pit Narrow Board Districts and was probably caused by shot firing. Poisonous gas killed the rescuers.

Inquests were held into the deaths at Trimdon Grange Inn and 44 victims were buried in a mass grave at Old Trimdon. Brave Herman was laid to rest at St Bartholomew’s at Croxdale.

One young woman was to have been married on the Saturday – but she attended her betrothed’s funeral instead.

Another victim was working his last shift prior to emigrating to America but one man was ‘saved’ after being arrested prior to his shift for non-payment of a fine.