Sunniside Local History Society

The Headstone Dedication at St Andrews Church Stanley


On the morning of February 16th 1909, Syd Wear’s father was moving into the Stanley Inn (Paddy Rocks) as landlord, It was a cold sunny day. Life was going on about the town in the normal way with no clues as to how that day would change the lives forever of so many people:

At 3.45pm there was the sound of a muffled explosion which stopped the town in its tracks, an explosion could only mean bad news in a coal town. People throughout the area were trying to identify where the explosion had occurred. Fifty seconds later there was a second explosion, much louder than the first, with flames and smoke shooting into the wintry sky. It was now obvious that it was the Burns Pit.

There were screams of fear as the womenfolk feared the worst. There was an instant movement of people toward the pit head, all with the same thoughts in mind. What had happened? how had was it? At first them were dozens of people, in minutes it was hundreds, and in no time at all, there were thousands. The swelling crowd soon realised there was no significant damage to the surface buildings and head gear. The damage was obviously below ground.

This heralded the worst Colliery disaster ever experienced in the Northern coalfields. 168 men and boys lost their lives on that dreadful day.


Three mass graves (trenches) were dug at St Josephs Church and St Andrews Church. The funerals took place over three days, a week after the disaster.


Eventually the mass grave at St Josephs Churchyard (above left) was marked with a memorial stone. The mass grave in St Andrews Churchyard remained unmarked.

A group of local people, Bob Drake, Jean Carleton and the Reverend Austin Johnson, led by local historian and author Jack Hair and a young journalist Chris Webber, resolved to rectify the situation and ensure that the mass grave at St Andrews Churchyard became suitably marked. Various fund raising events took place over the years, it was a slow process but the group backed by local people never gave up.


After a lot of hard work and many anxious moments they reached their goal, over £6000 had been raised, enough to pay for a wonderfully crafted memorial headstone.


At 12.00pm on Saturday 5th March 2005 in St Andrews Church, a service of dedication of a memorial headstone to mark the trench graves of the men and boys who died in the West Stanley Pit Disaster of 16th February 1909, was held. The Right Reverend John Pritchard Bishop of Jarrow (pictured above), conducted the service.

Local Historian Jack Hair gave the following description of the disaster:

The Urban District of Stanley owes its existence mainly due to the many seams of coal beneath the surface.

In the 18th and 19th century, the demands for coal from industry became even greater. The Mine owners moved inland from the coastal pits. Even they were staggered by the huge reserves of coal in our area, new ways were invented to transport the coal down to the rivers Tyne & Wear making it worthwhile. Stanley was a town straddling a fortune, with ten workable seams of coal beneath the ridge. A 40 feet band of some of the worlds best coking coal, awaiting the pick and shovel.

Coal shafts were sunk, sometimes only a few hundred yards apart, and there would he at least one coal mine in each village. Soon tons of tons of coal were being shipped from the Tyne and Wear from our area, however, all that came at a huge price. Hundreds of miners lost their lives in single accidents and even greater numbers were seriously injured in this very dangerous industry.

The largest disaster was at West Stanley Colliery, known locally as "The Burns Pit" , when 168 men and boys lost their lives as the result of two underground explosions at 3.45pm on Tuesday 16.February 1909. In the Towneley Seam 63 lay dead, in the Tilley Seam 18 lay dead, in the Busty Seam 33 lay dead and in the Brockwell Seam 48 lay dead. But incredibly, there were still men alive underground. A group of 34 men and boys in the Tilley Seam had found a pocket of clean air. They were led by Deputy Mark Henderson. Sadly a few of them panicked and left the group, they died instantly of the poison gas. The remainder sat in almost total darkness, when one of them began humming the Hymn "Lead Kindly Light". In no time at all. the rest of the miners joined in with the words, “Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on, The night is dark, and I am far away from home". Before the hymn ended, young Jimmy Gardner died of injuries. These 26 men were rescued after 14 hours, four others were later rescued. With so many bodies to bury, it was decided to hold the funerals in mass graves at the then Town Cemetery adjoining St Andrews Church and also at St Josephs RC Church. A small number had individual funerals in other areas.

In all, 118 were buried at the St Andrews site Priests of different faiths performing funerals side by side in the mass trench graves. Many widows and relatives collapsed due to the huge emotional grief of the occasion. Over the years, this cemetery has fallen into disrepair so much so, that it was almost impossible to see just where the trenches were. A small group of people have worked to raise money for a permanent memorial to those buried there. The District Council have prepared the site and also marked out the area with rose bushes. We meet today in a Service of Dedication for all those who died that day in 1909, and in particular, the 118 men and boys buried in the mass graves at the Town Cemetery at St Andrews. It also gives us the opportunity to remember all miners in our county who have lost their lives in the quest for coal, and for those still suffering from injuries and diseases sustained in the coat industry.

The collieries have all closed now and the coal owners long gone, however, the greatest wealth of our community still remains, the people.

Jack Hair


Following the Church service, the congregation led by the Bishop and Reverend Johnson, moved down to the site of the mass grave and new headstone. During the dedication, as they had inside the Church, the Reg Vardy Brass Band, (formerly the Craghead Colliery and Ever Ready Brass Band) played beautifully in the background. The final hymn ‘Abide With Me’ provided a memorable moment, which brought a tear to many an eye and a lump to many a throat.


It must have been a very proud moment for the people who had worked so hard over the years, to provide this memorable occasion. Two of those Bob Drake and Chris Webber are pictured on the left. Unfortunately because the ground was covered with snow and slush making walking conditions treacherous, Jack Hair and others were unable to reach the scene.


It was pleasing to note the great media interest, television crews from the BBC and ITV covered the event. Lara Rostron (pictured on the left) of the BBC’s ‘Look North’ interviewed Jacqueline Garforth the great grand- daughter of one of the disaster victims. Lara took a genuine interest in the proceedings and showed great sensitivity and kindness whilst carrying out her duties.


The Sunniside & District Local History Society had helped with fund raising by attending the first event at the Stanley Lamplight Centre and using our digital equipment to project the excellent presentation by Jack Hair. We also presented our own tribute to the victims. On April 1st 2003 we hosted a fund raising event at Sunniside Social Club and were delighted to welcome Jack Hair, Bob Drake and Chris Webber.

As the residents of a nearby mining village, we were immensely proud to be associated with such a noble cause. The people of Stanley and in particular the main motivators, should themselves feel very proud to have achieved such a wonderful and memorable end to all of their efforts.

F G Newman Sunniside L.H.S.


I received the above song written by folk singer and songwriter Mike Weston who has taken a great interest in the tragedy of the Burns Pit disaster. I am most grateful to Mike for his support in adding to this story.