Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Subterranean Balls: Gosforth (NZ254683)

What is so often overlooked in the history of coalmining is the great amount of time, risk and expense that went into the sinking of speculative new pits. There was never any guarantee of success, and such was the sense of relief and celebration that followed a successful ‘winning’ of a new colliery that quite often a subterranean ball would be held to mark the occasion.

With a refreshing disregard for modern-day health and safety concerns, these extraordinary events represent a fascinating cross-over between the classes of the day, when the well-to-do would descend into the bowels of the earth and mix with the pitmen and their families.

When coal was successfully struck at Gosforth Colliery in 1829 after a prolonged (and very difficult) sinking process lasting four years, the powers-that-be (namely, Charles John Brandling and his partners) launched forth into a typical underground get-together. From an unnamed source, thus:

The ball-room was situated at a depth of nearly 1,100 feet below the earth’s surface, and was in the shape of the letter L, the width being fifteen feet, the base twenty-two feet, and the perpendicular height forty-eight feet. Seats were placed round the sides of the ball-room, the floor was dried and flagged, and the whole place brilliantly illuminated with candles and lamps. The company began to assemble and descend in appropriate dresses about half-past nine in the morning, and continued to arrive till one in the afternoon. The men engaged in the work, their wives and daughters and sweethearts, several neighbours with their wives, the proprietors and agents with their wives, and sundry friends of both sexes who had courage to avail themselves of the privilege; all these gradually found their way to the bottom of the shaft. Immediately on their arrival there they proceeded to the extremity of the drift, to the face of the coal, where each person hewed a piece of coal as a memento of the visit, and then returned to the ball-room. As soon as a sufficient number of guests had assembled dancing commenced, and was continued without intermission till three o’clock in the afternoon. No distinction was made among the guests, and born and bred ladies joined in a general dance with born and bred pitmen’s daughters. All now returned in safety, and in nice, clean, and well-lined baskets, to the upper regions, delighted with the manner in which they had spent the day. It was estimated that between two and three hundred persons were present, and nearly one-half of them were females.

Gosforth Colliery was worked for a little over half a century, until it was abandoned in 1884.

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