‘The Hartley Catastrophe’

On this day in 1862, an accident at the Hartley Pit in Northumberland led to the deaths of 204 men and boys.

Around 11 o’clock in the morning, a wooden engine beam snapped sending more than 20 tons of winding gear and equipment down the shaft at the colliery about ten miles north-east of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Those working the coal seams below were effectively trapped and, despite heroic rescue efforts, died in the aftermath of the accident from a build-up of gas.

Following the tragedy, an Act of Parliament was passed requiring that, in future, no pit would rely on a single shaft as its only means of access.

Hartley Pit Disaster Memorial, St. Alban’s churchyard, Earsdon.
Photo taken by author 16th January 2023.

In terms of photographic history, the disaster was also significant.

This is graphically described and illustrated in Roger Taylor’s essay ‘The Hartley pit disaster, January 1862’ in Crown & Camera: The Royal Family and Photography 1842-1910 (London, Penguin Books, 1987), 60-63.

The article showcased a series of location photographs taken following the disaster by the firm of W. & D. Downey of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The photographs’ inclusion in the Royal Collection came about because the images were sent to Queen Victoria by the company.

The monarch was grieving following the death of her own husband Prince Albert a few weeks earlier, and she wrote to the pit owner, Charles Carr, expressing concern for the fate of the miners and their families.

Once the bodies of those involved were discovered, the Queen headed the list of subscribers to a public relief fund set up to support the women and orphans made destitute.

Today, Downey’s ‘Hartley Colliery’ photographs can be viewed on the Royal Collection website in an online version of its 1987 ‘Crown & Camera’ exhibition.

However, research for this blog raises a key question about the photographs: were they taken on 30th January 1862 as stated in the article and on the website?

The first photograph, measuring 8 inches by 6 inches, is a group shot (RCIN 2935021) featuring Charles Carr, the pit’s owner, its manager Joseph Humble, and master sinker William Coulson alongside other members of the rescue team.


Two further photographs, again 8″ x 6″, were taken of the pit-head ‘after the accident.’ The first (RCIN 2935024) features the letter ‘A’ visible above ‘the Engine House’ and figures arranged along a walkway.


The second pit-head view (RCIN 2935022) is accompanied by a handwritten note that uses the letters A-E to identify all the significant buildings and features of the landscape.

The note also states ‘photographed January 30th 1862 and most respectfully forwarded by W. & D. Downey.’


The dating of 30th January is one that I researched recently for a talk presented to the Royal Photographic Society Historical Group about the Downey company’s early years on Tyneside.

What I discovered from reading contemporary newspapers is that there is evidence that calls into question its accuracy.

Before looking at this evidence, how did Downey’s ‘Hartley pit disaster’ photographs come to be in the Royal Collection in the first place?

By way of background, W. & D. Downey, led by brothers William and Daniel, established its photographic business in and around the port of South Shields in the mid-1850s.

Downey company logo from carte-de-visite verso c. 1861.
© Author’s collection.

The company thrived and quickly established a reputation for high quality photographic portraits and as a supplier of news images to the illustrated press which appeared as engravings.

In October 1861, according to press reports, it opened its first ‘photographic rooms’ in Northumberland Street, Newcastle, several miles west from South Shields along the River Tyne.

It was a town-centre location that proved popular with ‘nobility, clergy and gentry.’

In January 1862, the firm began placing regular adverts in the Newcastle Daily Journal in a prized position on the front page at the top of the left-hand column.

This strategy made readers aware of its latest carte-de-visites portraits including ‘most of the public men of the north.’

It was a regular pattern that continued until Tuesday 28th January, twelve days after the disaster, when a marked change occurred in the advert’s wording.

Headed ‘The Hartley Colliery Calamity,’ it offered for sale ‘A Photographic View of the Engine-House, Machinery and Pit-Heap sent to any address, album size, for 13 Postage Stamps.’

The ad continued: ‘Those on a larger scale sent on receipt of 30 postage stamps by W. and D. Downey, 111 Northumberland Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The above may also be obtained from Mr. John Mawson, 13 Mosley Street.’

Mawson was a successful chemist at the heart of Newcastle’s contribution to early photography and someone with whom Downey regularly collaborated.

Further down the same column, Mawson used one of his own regular ads in the paper to advertise a ‘photographic view of the engine-house and machinery.’ Indeed, it was one he had first placed there in the previous day’s paper.

The photographs on sale, as described by both Downey and Mawson, suggest they were the ‘after the accident’ images in the Royal Collection highlighted above.

The next day, Wednesday 29th January, the same Downey and Mawson ads re-appeared alongside one placed by another leading Newcastle photographer, ‘Mr. R. Turner of the Fine Arts Repository, Grey Street.’

His advert headed ‘The Heroes of Hartley! Preparing For Immediate Publication’ referenced the human-interest story at the heart of the disaster.

For 7 shillings and 6 pence, it promised ‘a large, beautiful photographic picture of Mr. William Coulson, Master Sinker, and his brave workmen, who so nobly risked their Lives in the perilous Shaft for Ten Successive Days and Nights, endeavouring to save the Two Hundred and Four poor Colliers buried alive in the New Hartley Pit, Jan. 16th, 1862.’

Unlike the group photo in the Royal Collection credited to Downey, there is no mention of Mr. Carr, the mine owner, and Mr. Humble, the pit manager.

Taken together, these adverts suggest that all the photographs being offered for sale were more likely to have been taken, not on Thursday 30th January, but earlier that week.

By that point, the bodies of those who died in the disaster had been successfully brought to the surface and funeral services for its 204 victims had taken place.

So by Monday 27th, for example, a photo-call involving the key participants with access to the pit-head would have been viable.

Such a revised timeline is supported by a brief report that appeared in the Newcastle Daily Journal on Friday 31st January.

On page 2, the paper reported in its news columns:

‘Messrs. W. and D. Downey, the justly celebrated photographers of 111, Northumberland Street, in this town, last night [my italics] received a letter from Sir Charles Phipps, Osborne, thanking them for forwarding to Her Majesty the photographic views of Hartley New Colliery, the scene of the late terrible catastrophe.’

Phipps, Queen Victoria’s private secretary, was writing from the Queen’s residence on the Isle of Wight where she had retreated following the death of Prince Albert.

If the report in the Newcastle Daily Journal is accurate and to fulfill the statement ‘photographed January 30th,’ the following sequence of events happened in the course of a single day.

* First, photographs were taken on location at the Hartley Colliery.

* Prints, made by Downey from its negatives, were then dispatched to the Isle of Wight more than 400 miles away.

* And Sir Charles Phipps’ letter of thanks not only reached Downey back in Newcastle, but its contents were communicated to the Newcastle Daily Journal before its presses rolled.

Even allowing for the speed and reliability of the Victorian postal service, this seems unlikely.

What then might explain the ‘photographed Jan 30th, 1862’ inscription attached to Downey’s photographs in the Royal Collection?

That is a question that you may wish to speculate upon in the ‘comment’ box below this post.

Certainly, by the following Monday, 3rd February, Downey’s regular advert in the Newcastle Daily Journal offered a new and more detailed sales pitch.

‘The Hartley Catastrophe. Now Ready. A Series of Photographs, illustrative of the above Sad Calamity, taken upon the Spot, by W. and D. Downey, Photographers, No. 111, Northumberland Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.’

The ad then listed a number of images.

‘No. 1. Photographic portraits of Mr. Coulson and his Heroic Band of Sinkers, preparing to descend the shaft.’

‘No. 2. Mr. Coulson.’

‘No. 3. Johnny, the Tally Boy.’ This may refer to a portrait of a 12 year-old boy named as ‘Mark Bell’ by the Newcastle Courant (news report, 31st January 1862). He helped identify the bodies as his job entailed handing a tally to each miner who descended the shaft and collecting it again at the end of the shift.

‘No. 4. A general view of the Pit, Machinery, &c.’

‘No. 5. The Broken Beam.’

Each photograph was priced at one shilling, 1s 6d, or five shillings for a larger size print that could be bought from either Downey or John Mawson as before.

Accounts of this episode elsewhere state that W. & D. Downey were commissioned by Queen Victoria to take the photographs they did.

I have found no evidence to support this idea.

Rather, the use of the wording ‘most respectfully forwarded by W. & D. Downey’ in the Royal Collection archive suggests that the firm followed its own instincts in response to the Queen’s evident interest in the tragedy.

From a commercial viewpoint, it was soon able to use the slogan ‘Patronized By Her Majesty’ on the verso of its carte-de-visites whilst also promoting its new portrait rooms in Newcastle at 9 Eldon Square which opened in early March.

Downey company logo on verso of a carte-de-visite c. 1862.
© Author’s collection.

Given the wider public interest in the Hartley Pit disaster and the business opportunity foreseen by W. & D. Downey, it is intriguing to note that these celebrated photographs and larger size print versions referred to in this blogpost rarely appear for auction.

Perhaps they remain treasured momentos of those in the wider community of the North-East of England whose lives were so cruelly affected by events on that January day 161 years ago.

New Hartley Memorial Garden. Photo taken by author 16th January 2023.

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