“I had saved my own life and others and the whole colliery.” (48)
Anthony’s most defining moments are found in the heroic actions of saving others. The unforgiving danger of the pits was an everyday threat which moulded the workers into fearless and historic working-class symbols. The second half of Anthony’s memoir is submerged in danger, the work was not only extremely time consuming, it also drained one of their emotions through the continuous menace of the gas that could engulf the mine.
Just after 1800, Anthony explains a valiant moment where he saved his fellow workers from a blast. Whilst working alone in the Hollihill Pit, Anthony witnessed, “a mist coming down out of a hole where the warter had comed. This was pure gas.” (47) This was a moment of horror for any worker in the mines and it was a test of how they must think logically, very fast. Anthony had the “presence of mind to run to the high way to give the alarm.” (47) If the escaping gas reached the underground furnace below, they all would have been in grave danger. Luckily, everyone made it out safely and Anthony was told that he was worth his, “weight in gold,”(48) and that he had saved his “own life and others and the whole Colliery.” (48) In these situations, it sometimes only came down to one person to alert the others. It was a moment that showed the glorious solidarity of the miners. It took three more days to make sure the pit was safe and then they returned back to their duties. The relentlessness of the work was a constant risk to their safety but that was the reality for many of the working class at the time.
Only a month after this close catastrophe, Anthony was descending into the pit with “a fue boys” (48) when “the Rope surged on the rowl and we dropped 2 fathum,” (48) which meant that “the winding rope, as it was being unwound from a roller, slipped from its coil.” (48) On top of the threat of an explosion, there were many other dangers lurking below, including the possibility of falling to your death. After waiting for help, for one hour twenty minutes, Anthony described that:
I could not stand up, my legs and thigs was num. I stripped off and Joseph Hunter rubbed my thigs and legs with both hands until the Blood got Circulation. The others was done the same with. I once more returned almity god sincear thanks for his Merciful providence over mee.” (48)
Here is an example of the spirit they had in the mines. Through terrifying experiences, the men are not alone. They had each other to spread positivity around the bleak surroundings that they were in. This section is also an example of the other presence in the pits – God. With religion being such a dominating part of working-class lives, it was clearly a major motivation for getting though the dangers and uncertainties of life. When a terrifying moment happened in the pit, Anthony used his faith to overcome the anxieties that occurred. This helped him stay positive and almost invincible in his line of work as God would decide when he was to go and that would mean that the paradise of heaven awaited him.
Moving on, one strange area of Anthony’s memoir is that he fails to mention the harrowing mining disaster at John Pit, Felling, in 1812. The disaster horrifically took the lives of 90 men and boys (Hodgson, 1812, 6), resulting in it being a major point in safety measures in mining history. This was the mine that Anthony’s father first rode the waggon for when it opened and Anthony, most likely, knew a lot of people who died that day. He was working in Howden, which was about a 2 hour walk at the time, which explains why he must have avoided the blast but the news will have travelled far. Only one year later, Anthony nearly experienced a pit disaster in the Howden Pit. Anthony described that:
I and 6 wastemen had got on to work there when I saw the candle was just at the Firing point. I shouted, “Put out the Lows! Andrew Bell said, “Lord have mercy upon us, we are all dead men!” (68)
This moment of danger captures the spine-chilling terror when things suddenly went wrong in the pits. There was a blast but due to Anthony’s warning, everyone survived and could carry on work two hours later! The main colliery supervisor of the North East at the time, Mr. John Buddle, quoted, “Thee hath saved thy own life and all the men and horses and the colliery. I will confer the overman’s place on thee.” (70) Anthony refused this position by humbly stating that, “there was young men in the colliery coming up in expectation of such places.” (70) At this point, we get an insight into Anthony’s respectful nature in work. He had the chance to benefit from his heroic actions but he dismissed the offer as other people deserved it more. Fortunately for Anthony, he avoided any tragedy’s himself but he was surrounded by a menacing danger constantly. He lived in a time where mining was in a transitional period and as time passed it continuously became more regulated and safe but if it wasn’t for the heroic actions of Anthony and others, many more would have lost their lives.
Errington, Anthony. Coals And Rails: the autobiography of Anthony Errington, a Tyneside colliery waggonway-wright. 1776 – c. 1825. Written between 1823 and about 1830. 1:231.
Hodgson, John, Felling Colliery 1812: An Account of the Accident. Picks Publishing, 1999.
A painting of the 1812 pit disaster at the Felling Colliery
‘The Felling mine explosion, May 25, 1812’