Disaster Glasses

Disaster glasses are generally simple glasses of a type that would have been used in public houses. They are wheel-engraved with brief details of a particular disaster. Usually they refer to mining disasters but there are examples of other situations which have resulted in the death of one or more persons. Almost all are concerned with events in the North East of England. These glasses may have been sold to raise money for the dependants of the people who died although some seem to have been given to people who were involved in the rescue operations. The earliest disaster recorded in this way appears to be for St Hilda’s Colliery in 1839 and the latest  was Woodhorn Colliery in 1916. Anyone interested in learning more about these glasses and the events they commemorate should refer to « Look back in wonder » by Dr. William Cowan completed in 2013. He gave this work to Beamish Transport Museum and it is available through Beamish Transport Online as a pdf file.

New Hartley Colliery, 16th January 1862

At the time of writing we have two glasses of this type in stock, one for the New Hartley Colliery in 1862 and another for Victoria Hall in 1883. Brief details of both disasters are given below.

There had been a deep coal mine at Hartley in Northumberland since the end of the 13th century. Hartley village was near the coast and gradually the working shaft was extended under the sea which led to flooding. An engine powered pumping system was installed in 1760 but by 1844 the flooding was so severe that the mine was closed.

A new shaft, Hester Pit, was opened about a mile inland in 1845 and the low main seam of coal was reached on the 29th May 1846. The mine was called New Hartley Colliery and the village of New Hartley grew up round it.

The mine, like many others of the time, was a single shaft pit. This meant that everything : coal, men and materials went up and down the shaft which also provided fresh air ventilation. By 1855 flooding had become so dangerous that a pumping system was installed powered by a large steam engine which was place in the shaft.

On Thursday, 16th January 1862 the first crew went on duty at 2.30 a.m. At 10.30 a.m. a changeover was taking place so that at that moment both shaft crews were underground. As the first eight men were ascending the beam supporting the pump engine snapped. Debris falling on the cage in which the miners were travelling broke two of the support chains. Four men fell to their deaths while the remaining four held on. The shaft was blocked and all the men underground were trapped.

  • It took nearly a week for rescuers to reach the trapped men by which time they had all been overcome by the build up of carbon monoxide gas which could not be evacuated. When they were found fathers were holding their sons and brothers grasped the hands of brothers. 204 died, the youngest being only ten years old. Every family in New Hartley was affected. In some cases there were as many as four men lost from the same household. It was one of the worst mining disasters of the 19th century.

    This appalling loss of life led to legislation that no new mine could have only one shaft thereby giving the chance of escape through the second shaft if an emergency should occur.

    One of the first men to descend to try to help the men who fell was Thomas Watson, a local Methodist preacher. He was the last man to be lifted alive from the mine.

    Queen Victoria was so moved by the disaster that she sent a letter to the people of New Hartley. The picture below shows one of the villagers reading to his neighbours the Queen’s words.

    Victoria Hall, Sunderland, 16th June 1883

    A children’s variety show took place in the Victoria Hall, Sunderland on the 16th June 1883. Everything went well and the huge audience of children enjoyed it . However, for them the best part was supposed to come at the end when the organisers were to give prizes to children lucky enough to have winning numbers on their tickets. At the end of the show an announcement was made that the prizes would be given as the children left the theatre. When they heard this 1100 children who were at the gallery level tried to get down to the stage. There was a double door which they had to pass through but this was locked and the only opening was sufficiently wide to allow one person to pass through. Very quickly the children were pushed together. Some fell and were trodden over. By the time someone managed to smash the doors and let the throng through 183 children had been crushed to death.

    The barrier through which they had to pass had been locked on their side. The resultant enquiry led to the installation of a bar release system on doors in public places which was adopted all over the world and is still in use today.