111 years ago today, in my home town of Stanley, true disaster struck.
Within minutes, down the various seams of the Burns Pit, 168 boys and men were dead. It was an explosion fathoms underground which devastated the coal-reliant community above. Many families lost multiple loved ones that day; single terraced streets saw death on an unimaginable scale.
In the days that followed, the remaining boys and men of our unremarkable little town on a windy hill north of Durham continued to head underground to their jobs in the other coalmines that dominated the landscape. Stanley was literally built on coal, and there was no choice but to go on biting the dust.
The eyes of the nation and the world – as much as was possible in those slow, distant days – were fixed on Stanley, as evidenced by newspaper archives of the time. Tens of thousands made pilgrimage up the hill from across the region to pay their respects.
The little town, bursting at its seams, was frozen for a moment in time. Many of its men were gone, but its spirit was not.
Families and friends rallied together to arrange funerals for their dead, even when in many cases that meant simple communal burials in mass graves like the one pictured in the image on this page, at the council burial ground in the town.
Imagine it, just for a moment. Imagine the loss. Imagine the scale of the loss. Imagine the coverage were such a horrific event to happen today. I try, but I’m not certain that I can.
These are the things which regularly fill my mind as I cast my thoughts back to those dark winter days of 1909.
I’ve always been fascinated by that time, from being sat with my Grandad as a child when he’d pass on to me the pictures and stories passed on to him. Over the years that collection has grown, and I’m always looking to add more. I plan one day to pull it all together in a book so I can share it even more widely.
But for today, like this day every year, I remember the loss of those one hundred and sixty eight, the bravery of the men who tried to bring them back, and the grief of those that were left behind.