Posted by: Graham | July 14, 2009

1909 West Stanley Pit Explosion Tues the 16th of Feb 1909 168 Lives lost 2 Bodies got out 1933

At 3.45pm on the 16th February 1909 a small explosion was heard from the Burns Colliery, in West Stanley. Less than a minute later there was a second, much louder explosion. At the top of the North Shaft was Ralph Stephenson, the colliery engineer. He told the Inquiry “I heard a roar and saw a red flame right down the shaft. As the roar increased I stepped quickly back and called to other men to keep clear. I then stumbled about four yards from the shaft and fell sideways and just at that moment I saw a large ball of fire issue from the mouth of the pit, followed by a thick black cloud. The cloud spread around about me whilst I was still on the ground. I was in darkness, still prostrate. When I was in the act of rising again the air in the shaft reversed and carried the remainder of the black cloud with it, and I was then in clear air.

Funeral Crowds

Funeral Crowds

This minute of action took the lives of 168 men and boys from West Stanley in one of the worst pit disasters in the 20th century in the UK. The effect was devastating on the community; in one street of 14 houses, 12 men died.

I first read of the West Stanley disaster in a history text book and when I mentioned it to my grandmother, she told me that as a ten year-old she walked the five miles to attend the mass funerals, which followed a week later. She was one of an estimated 200,000 who made their way to the mass funerals.

Much debate has gone into the cause of the explosions. The official Inquiry came to the following conclusion: “To sum up our observations, it appears fairly certain that a small initial explosion – a mere puff – was succeeded within about 50 seconds by a much more extensive and severer explosion which did practically all the damage, and which was projected from seam to seam. Where either of these explosions originated we are not prepared to say, but clearly it was not in the Tilley seam. The main explosion may have been initiated by an explosion of gas, but was undoubtedly propagated by coal dust. What the means of ignition were we cannot say.

Mark Henderson

Mark Henderson

One of the remarkable things about the disaster was the survival of a group of 26 men led to safety by Mark Henderson. Henderson was an experienced pit deputy. Seing the danger he led a group to a small gallery, away from the gas to a pocket of air. Initially there were 34 of them. Unfortunately some panicked and fled into the poison gas and perished. Thankfully Henderson persuaded the others to stay put. After many hours trapped in the dark, during which one badly injured man died, Henderson went out into the passageway and was able to make his way to the pit shaft where he found the one working telephone and was able to call telling a shocked individual at the pithead that there were 26 people still alive down below. The men were rescued after 14 hours underground.

The chronicle also mentions a strange event, which happened 24 years later. Two miners were working a different seam in the reopened pit when the roof collapsed and opened up the old pit. In front of them were the bodies of William Chaytor (55) and John Rodgers (57) who died in the 1909 disaster. One story is that John Rodgers, who was gambling man, always carried his money with him whilst working. He supposedly had £30 in gold, which he carried in a money belt. It was not on him when he was found in 1933.

For a miner such as James the disaster at West Stanley would have been a momentous event and a reminder of the risks that he and so many others ran to earn a living.


Jack Hair Local Historian
Sunniside Local History Society
Durham Mining Museum
Northern Echo

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