An ornate marble memorial comprising a four-tierred base supporting a grey marble pedestal with pink pilasters at each corner and moulded entablature at its peak. This is surmounted by four urns at each corner, a drum with swag and cupola capped by a festooned urn.
James Smith, secretary of the Empire Working Members Club and Institute of West Stanley, requested the council provide a site for a disaster memorial in 1909. Less than four years later, the memorial, paid for by club subscriptions, was erected outside the new council chambers in Front Street. It was re-sited in the new burial ground in 1936.(2)
County Durham's worst mining disaster this century occured at the Burns Pit, West Stanley on the 16th February 1909. At 3.45 p.m. townspeople heard a muffled bang shortly followed by a loud roar.
An exploration of the shafts began almost immediately but attempts at a rescue were hindered by several significant factors. No trained rescue team was available nor was there any on-site equipment to remove wreckage. It was not known how many men were below ground or where they were located.
Whilst a voluntary group of rescuers cleared the debris in order to access the shafts, a telephone call from below ground informed them that there were '26 of us left. Can you get us out ?'.
Fourteen hours after the blast, the survivors were brought to safety. Meanwhile 168 miners lay entombed underground, killed by the force of the explosion, from burns or carbon monoxide poisoning. Fifty nine of those who died were under the age of 21.
As bodies were being recovered, news of the disaster spread throughout the country and hundreds of the press and curious onlookers made their way to the town. Photographs and postcards were produced as souvenirs and 200,000 people are said to have arrived in West Stanley for the mass burial several days later. By the 27th February 166 bodies had been recovered. Though two men were unaccounted for, the colliery officials, unable to locate their bodies, closed the mine down.
At the inquest, the jury, having heard 195 witnesses, were unable to establish a cause for the explosion and found no-one culpable. The coroner, in view of the confusion caused in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, made a significant recommendation: at the beginning of each shift numbered discs should be issued to miners in exchange for lamps. This practice, being an effective register of men below ground, was later adopted by all collieries in Britain and eventually made law.
Following the re-opening of the mine in 1933 the two remaining bodies were found. A second inquest was held at which the comments of J.B.Atkinson were heard. Atkinson, a government mining inspector from Newcastle, believed that there were important omissions in the first inquest and that a so-called safety lamp had caused the pit to explode. His own experiments had proved that the Howart's Patent Deflector Safety Lamp was unfit for use in mines.(1)
Incised in gilded letters on the south west dado: IN MEMORIAM / THIS MONUMENT WAS / ERECTED BY / THE SOCIAL CLUBS, / IN THE DISTRICT, / FEBRUARY 15th 1913, / TO THE MEMORY OF / THE 168 MEN AND BOYS, / WHO LOST THEIR LIVES, / BY THE EXPLOSION, / AT THE / WEST STANLEY COLLIERY / FEBRUARY 16TH 1909
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