In 1896, Mary (28) and William (34) had 8 young children but others in the village had 15 or 16. Mary Jane also appears to be trying to boost the family coffers by working as a housekeeper.
At the time of the accident, the mine was in a slump and there was often only work for half of the miners on any given day. The unions response to low employment was to promote work-sharing. Men often gave up their shift to others with larger families or greater need and this was reciprocated when the need arose in their fellow colleagues. There were about 138 miners employed at the time and William Harrison Hill was one of them.
On the day of the tragic explosion there was only work available for one shift of 65 men. The doomed shift started at 7.45am. All the men would have turned up at the mine just prior to that time on that morning to be told how many were required for the day….and 65 were either chosen, volunteered or bargained or maybe even pleaded with their colleagues to be allowed down to earn some desperately needed money.
By all accounts Thursday 26th March dawned fine and still. The previous four days however, had been incredibly stormy, the river was in flood and the bar too treacherous to cross. Because of this the mine was idle on Wednesday but reopened the next day. Some men felt the weather conditions may have contributed to explosion with the high river levels pushing gases from the adjacent Coal Pit Heath Mine into the Brunner mine and the lower than usual atmospheric pressure allowing an easier flow of methane gas.
The explosion occurred at 9.30am. The first sign of the accident was noticed by an engine driver, Robert Smith who saw the dip rope falling onto the floor of the engine house and heard the electric bell connected to the top of the dip. Then a young lad nearby called. “Bob come quick; the mouth of the drive is afire”. Black and yellow smoke was seen belching from the mine entrance.
All the 65 men and boys on that shift were killed. Some near the explosion by burning or injury from the blast and those further away died within 3 minutes from the afterdamp gases. Some were found wedged into crevasses and once had time to wrap himself in brattice for protection. The youngest two being 16 and the oldest was 72. 39 women were made widows on that day. 50% of the underground work force was killed.
Should William have been working that shift…none of us would be here today. Our common ancestor Poppa Albert Victor Hill was not born until 2.5 years after this disaster. There was literally a 50/50 chance he would never have been born. The toss of a coin really.. and had that happened you could snap your fingers right now and this very spot you are occupying, right this instant would contain everything you see around you….except you of course!
The book, “Disaster at Brunner” by Brian Wood names William Hill as one of the first miners involved in the rescue effort. We can almost be certain the book refers to our William. There were two William Hills in town at that time but ours was the only one employed as a Brunner miner. The other was a Smithy and by all accounts it was the surviving miners and mine bosses that made the original entry into the mine. Many of these were overcome by toxic gases and had to be revived at the surface. One rescuer was to return to the surface vomiting blood and was to remain unconscious for most of the day! Some had lasting health issues because of the gases and one died a whole year after. The cause attributed to the effects of gas on his body.
“With air drawn once more back into the entrance tunnel Mine Manager Bishop and Robert Smith entered the mine. The were accompanied by stocky William Stevens who finding there was no oil in his lamp, returned and went back in with William Hill and Maurice Moore”.
Listen to early stories of Brunner here. Click on the arrow > scroll to 16.53
Bill recalls early days at Brunner- the brickworks, the poor wages and conditions. He remembers the maritime workers strike of 1890, which the Brunner miners supported. . He saw figures of anti-unionists being burnt in effigy at Wallsend. He was at school when the Brunner Mine disaster happened in 1896 – at the time he lived in Dobson, dozens of local men were killed. The funeral was something that will live in his memory forever. The funeral procession was twelve people abreast, and was two miles long. Recorded in 1962.