Last week I visited South Shields Museum, which was the library when I was younger and the Mechanics Institute before that, which opened in 1860. On 26 April 1861 part of it was used as the first location for the newly formed South Shields Marine School, of which I am very proud to be a Fellow. The Marine School building itself was being constructed on the opposite side of Ocean Road and formally opened in January 1869. There is more about the Marine School in a previous blog accessible here.
I don’t go often but when I do I usually learn something new and on this visit I concentrated on the coal trade as my father was a miner all of his working life and these days, coalmines are frowned upon globally. The coalmines in this area were all closed more than 30 years ago.
I note here some of the interesting facts about South Shields and the wider South Tyneside, which includes, Jarrow, Hebburn and the Boldons.
Mining for coal in the area began in Roman times but it was not until 1792 that the first deep pit in South Tyneside was sunk by Simon Temple in Hebburn. After a slightly faltering start other pits were established – St. Hilda’s (1810) and Harton Colliery (My dad’s pit for 40 years)(1845) in South Shields and Whitburn Colliery (1879).
It became a huge, successful industry, providing work for hundreds of men and boys and in earlier years, for women too. However, it was a dangerous job, working conditions were not ideal, safety was often sacrificed in the face of profit and consequently miners were often in dispute with their employees.
Mining: a dangerous occupation
People worked deep underground where there was no light, hardly any space in which to move and always the risk of flooding. Occasionally, the naked flame of a candle would ignite the pockets of methane gas that could build up and cause an explosion. Despite the development of the safety lamp, the flame of which would change colour and shape to indicate dangerous gases in the air, it was not always used and trusted and life down the mine continued to be hazardous.
There were explosions at Jarrow and Hebburn in which many lives were lost. However, the single biggest loss of life took place at St. Hilda’s Colliery, South Shields on 28 June 1839 in which 37 men and 14 boys under the age of 16 years old were killed.
Coincidently, when we relocated Solar Solve from Sunderland to South Shields in 1993, our new factory and office headquarters were on St. Hilda Industrial Estate, right next to the plaque that marks where the fated mineshaft was at the time of the tragic explosion.
I will refer to South Tyneside Shipping History in Part 2.
John Lightfoot, Solar Solve Chairman