Widow won hearts of community

CHRIS Cordner’s investigations into his family history has uncovered tales of tragedy.

Earlier this week, the Hartlepool Mail’s Head of Features revealed how a mining disaster killed his great-great grandfather John Defty.

John’s 31-year-old widow Margaret was left to bring up five children and a grandchild.

How did she cope? Read on.

BRITAIN in the 1800s was no place for a young widowed woman to live.

My great-great grandmother Margaret Defty had no choice.

On August 16, 1885, her world was changed forever when her husband John was one of three men killed in a disaster at Kimblesworth Colliery in County Durham.

John, 32, Richard Carr, 38, and Thomas Carr, 35, all plunged 250ft to their deaths while they were in a cage repairing a mine shaft and the rope holding up the cage snapped.

Despite her grief, Margaret Defty had to find ways of supporting her young family. How would they survive? This was Britain in the days before state benefits.

I turned for answers to Durham County Record Office based in County Hall in Durham City. It is a veritable treasure with four miles of archives reflecting the life and times of County Durham over the last 900 years.

In the Search Room three staff are always available to help and there are documents galore - from pit papers to parish books.

Archivist Gill Parkes was determined to help me find my past.

She soon had the answers and they were almost too incredible to believe.

In a scene reminiscent of a modern-day fundraising drive, the community of Kimblesworth launched a disaster appeal to support the widows and their children.

They thought up the idea of poem which would be published, printed and sold with every coin going to the grieving families.

Local author William C Bickle penned 32 verses of heart-wrenching prose and the hard-up locals paid whatever they could afford to buy a copy of the poem, often mere pennies.

I was astonished at this jewel of information and Gill pointed out: “Not everyone is as lucky as you have been with your research.”

I was truly grateful – but there was more to come.

Minutes later, Gill placed a document in front of me. It was an original copy of the very poem which saved my family’s fortunes.

The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. This was a genealogist’s dream.

Gill also had a copy of John Defty’s burial entry, showing he was laid to rest on the same day as the two men who perished with him in the pits.

And so, despite the grief, my great-great grandmother had one less burden to cope with as the financial heartache was eased.

And by 1901, she had taken in a boarder to make ends meet while she ran a house in John Street, Kimblesworth.

It was at least the beginnings of a happier ending.