Showing posts with label Hamilton Pit Disaster. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton Pit Disaster. Show all posts

Saturday, 4 January 2014

A Great Fall of Roof - the Hamilton Mine Disaster

He denied he’d been warned, that the conversations had ever taken place. After all, James Sharp was acting Overman at the Hamilton Pit, and his word would be sure to stand over that of the miners before the Coroner. Sharp had the authority.

It was early on a Saturday, 22 June 1889, an ordinary working day for the 100 or so miners except that first up, they would change the working positions they’d held for three months. The change was based on a draw for places. Each pair of miners would move to fresh workings throughout the pit, 200 feet underground. They’d take in their tools and get organised for the long day. Wheelers, who pushed the loaded skips back out to the surface, were assigned to each position. That day, four ponies were down the Hamilton Pit.

The Hamilton Pit (or H Pit, Glebe Pit, or New Pit, as it was variously known), was under what is now Thomas Street, Hamilton South, near Glebe Road. The Newcastle Museum located the H Pit at 275 Beaumont Street. In some documents, the Hamilton Pit is placed in Merewether.

New Pit, Glebe, Newcastle NSW, 1887
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Work started at 6.30 am;  men were making their way to their positions from 6 am onwards. Some had breakfast before starting work.

Miners crib tin and water bottle 
Crib’ refers to a meal eaten at break time in mines
Photograph courtesy of the Barry Howard Collection,
Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Within three hours, ‘the most appalling’ disaster to have occurred in NSW’ [1] up until 1897 would terrify and trap men and boys underground, killing 11, and ruining the lives of their families.


Bronze relief from the Miners Memorial Wall, Aberdare

The permanent Overman, or mine manager, was absent that day, and James Sharp was Acting Overman. Two deputies, James Hodson and Anthony Turnbull, each had responsibility for a cluster of positions, or work sites. The delineation of responsibility was clear. Another Deputy, George Embleton junior, was not down the mine at the time of the calamity, though he assisted with the rescue effort later.

We know in detail what happened that morning, because of evidence given to an inquest [2] before City Coroner Mr George Martin, JP and a jury of twelve. The inquest was into the death of one man, Herbert Pettit. His was the first body to be recovered, a long 10 days after the disaster.

·         The boss, Overman Sharp had 40 years of practical mining experience. When he’d done his rounds that morning, he’d noted nothing to alarm him. At one position, where miner John Acton was to be working, he saw ‘the roof troubled, and the pillar ripping’ but thought there was no danger.

·         When Acton arrived at his position, he was definitely alarmed. Hearing the rock creaking very badly overhead, he brought out the tools, telling three wheelers not to go in. Finding Deputy James Hodson, his immediate superior, he reported that it was not safe for anyone to work at that position. John Acton also told Overman Sharp. He felt ignored by both bosses. Hodson would not survive.

·         Another miner David Inglis met John Acton making his way to safety. Inglis too decided to get out, warning others to do likewise or they would not come out alive. The booming right over their heads followed them all the way. Inglis thought the roof gave ‘excellent warning’.

·         Miner William Galloway also went in search of Sharp to tell him the mine was ‘working’. ‘He told me to let it come in, he could not help it’. Galloway started to push a skip but got no more than 60 yards when a blast of wind, coal dust and stone struck him and several of his men. They were knocked down and lost their lamps; they sheltered for a time under an upturned skip. Eventually someone found a light and they escaped with great difficulty.

·         Michael Ryan, a skip wheeler, heard the mine working and ran to find Hodson. When he told Hodson what was happening, and that he was afraid to go in for fear of a fall, he was told, ‘if you can’t do it, someone else will take your place’. Ryan felt intimidated, and went back to work, afraid he would be discharged.

·         Another wheeler, also by the name of Ryan, had experienced the bumping and creaking of the mine ‘working’, when he met Overman Sharp. He too, was afraid - he did not think it was his place to tell Sharp what he thought.

·         Anthony Turnbull, another Deputy, was not in charge of the headings where movement was occurring. But he visited one of them, heard the creaking, and ‘thought she would come down – within an hour’. Other men heard this forecast.

·         Miner Francis Ford checked out the position where Morgan and Thompson were working. He said he thought the timber should be renewed as it was not safe. Returning to his own position and beginning to fill a skip, Ford heard first signal of danger over his head. Then came a succession of cracks, like a rattle of thunder. As he ran for his life, down came the top – Ford was partly buried, lost everything, but others came, and somehow they escaped.

Miner’s safety lamp used 1815 to the 1930s
They were much safer than oil and carbide lamps as the flame was enclosed  to reduce the chance of igniting gases
Photograph courtesy of the Barry Howard Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

In small groups at their working positions, throughout the Hamilton Pit, miners heard the eerie creaking overhead. Urgently, intensely aware of what might happen, they shared information about the conditions among themselves.

No directions were forthcoming from the Overman or his deputies. Men everywhere were deciding for themselves it was not safe, and gathering their tools. They ran, warning others as they did so, while rock and earth fell around them. Men scrambled over the falls, and David Moore heard Peate senior calling for help. Earlier, Robert McDougall had been unable to help Peate in the fall, which left them all in the dark. Peate was left with only his head and shoulders uncovered.

William Galloway heard the voices of Dan Masson and John Banfield calling for help, but could find neither. He did find Jabez Roberts, an older experienced miner, on top of a fall of earth and coal, bleeding freely. At Jabez’ wish, Galloway left him, with a bottle of tea and some food. Jabez Roberts did not survive.

Mine disaster day – crowds gather to await news (1889)
Photograph courtesy Newcastle Museum

The verdict

The inquest found that Herbert Pettit’s death was caused by a fall of stone and coal in the Hamilton Pit on 22 June, 1889. Edward Blackburn received the highest praise and commendation of his efforts to rescue Pettit. The cause of the fall, in the opinion of the jury, was a weakness in the pillars, being too small for the weight of the roof.

Exhibition on Beaumont Street, Hamilton at the Newcastle Museum
The miner’s stories are re-enacted here – visitors are invited to listen to them by placing their head inside the adjacent module

Recommendations were made to legislate for specific dimensions of pillars and bords, and for more government inspectors with greater powers. The decision went on:

‘Finally, we consider that Mr James Sharp, the Overman, neglected his duty in not calling the men out when it was reported to him that the pit was working so badly’.

Miner David Inglis, in his evidence, had stated unequivocally that had the men been warned by Sharp when he came in at 8 am, there would have been time for all to get out – men and ponies.

Sharp had told the Inquest he was not aware of what Hodson had been told by Ryan and Acton. He denied telling William Galloway to ‘let it come in, he could not help it’.

How was it that so many of the men at work that morning, including one of the deputies, clearly grasped that danger was imminent, yet this escaped Sharp and Hodson? Were they so convicted of the need to keep the mine working that morning that they were prepared to ignore the most compelling of signs?

John Dixon, Inspector of Collieries for the Northern District, would not be drawn on whether he thought the men should have been called out. He was reserving that information he said, for the Minister for Mines. Rebuked by the Coroner, Dixon narrowly escaped being committed for contempt of court.

The NMH had been prolific and responsible in its coverage of the disaster. On 2 August, 1889 it published an assessment of Sharp’s neglect and concluded that there appeared to be a prima facie case of liability by the AA Company. The question of liability had implications for the future of the families who had lost breadwinners.

The rescue

Recovery of the bodies proceeded slowly, due to the danger the collapsed workings posed to the rescuers. While the first body, that of Herbert Pettit, was recovered 10 days after the fall, it was not until 2 August, 41 days later, that 2 more were found. Other discoveries followed, until the last, David Proctor, was brought to the surface on 8 September - 78 days after the fall.

Miner's body being carried out - bronze relief at the Miners Memorial Wall, Aberdare

How long did the men and ponies survive underground? The rescuers brought back harrowing descriptions of the state of those they found. At a later inquest into the death of Deputy Overman James Hodson, Dr Harris gave his professional opinion death was not due to starvation, but from the effects of foul air. How could this be consolation for anguished families and friends?

The jury viewed Hodson’s body, which presented a truly terrible sight, his skin hanging like folds of dried parchment. Aged 56, Hodson was considered a careful miner. How he would have wished that on 22 June, 1889, he had exercised even greater care and wiser judgement.

The management of the rescue operation is another story. It seems fraught with failures of judgement, decision making and action by those in authority. In the second inquest, the AA Company was criticised for a lack of urgency in its approach to the rescue effort, and not using proper procedures. Reading the accounts, one word comes to me – callousness.

This jury returned a similar verdict to that in the case of Pettit, again stating the view that Sharpe was culpable, and to a lesser extent, Hodson.

Funeral of Glebe Pit men, St Augustine's, Merewether (3 July 1889)
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Sharpo the pit pony

The plight of the pit ponies should not be forgotten. Four ponies laboured underground with the wheelers. Regan’s pony was found dead from starvation, a mass of skin and bone. Twelve days after the mine collapse, a member of the rescue party heard breathing. A pit pony was found, miraculously surviving by licking water that was dripping onto his foreleg. The pony was carried to the underground stables on boards covered with canvas, tended with great care, and given gruel. He was identified as Sharpo, and for three days, became a celebrity and symbol of hope for waiting families. Sadly, three nights later, Sharpo refused food. He died the next morning.

Coal miners and a pit pony, Hunter Valley, NSW (n.d.)
Photograph courtesy of the Bert Lovett collection, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Relief efforts and compensation

Quickly after the disaster, the community acted to raise funds for the relief of those affected.There were appeals, concerts and generous acts, such as the cancellation of debts by business owners.

The AA Company fought back, protesting against the verdict at what seemed to be a staged public meeting in Williams’ Hotel, Hamilton. It was not until 4 November, 1889 that an announcement was made by the AA Company as to the financial assistance it would provide for the families of the deceased. The Company recognised no legal responsibility for what had happened to their breadwinners, but would make fortnightly payments in respect of wives and children.

These are the men who died

...entombed in the Hamilton Pit disaster of 22 June, 1889 -












Miners Memorial Wall, Aberdare

This memorial commemorates the deaths - and lives - of at least 1532 of those who have died in the Northern District Coalmines of NSW since mining began there in 1891. It includes those who died in the Hamilton Pit. The memorial wall can be found in the grounds of the United Mineworkers Federation of Australia, Aberdare.

To learn about other Hamilton miners who lost their lives, read this story.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


Special acknowledgement is made of the chapter on 'The Catastrophe at the Glebe' in the book by Frank Maxwell and Elaine Sheehan: Nineteenth Century Coalmining-Related Deaths in the Hunter (2004).

[1] Stated by City Coroner Mr George Martin, JP as reported in the NMH 10 July 1889.
[2] Maxwell, F and Sheehan, E: Nineteenth Century Coalmining-Related Deaths in the Hunter (2004) Chapter ‘The Catastrophe at the Glebe’.