Popular travel and wildlife TV presenter Kate Humble knew little about her ancestors before she agreed to appear on Who Do You Think You Are?. And what she found was a colourful history with many surprises. Her paternal grandfather, Bill Humble, was a celebrated RAF pilot and her maternal grandfather was interned in the infamous Stalag Luft III during the Second World War.
But perhaps the biggest surprise and most moving story was that of great-great-great grandfather Joseph Humble, who worked for a colliery in Northumberland.
Kate was first alerted to Joseph Humble’s story through looking at the 1861 and 1871 censuses. On the 1861 census (below) he is listed as a ‘colliery viewer’ living alongside other mine workers in Northumberland.
But by the time of the 1871 census he had moved to Durham and was listed as a grocer and draper.
There’s nothing unusual in this you might think, except that, as Kate found out he worked at the colliery at the time of the Hartley Colliery Disaster in January 1862. The event is still regarded as one of the worst mining accidents in England, and caused the death of over 200 miners.
We haven’t seen the programme yet, but our curiosity got the better of us and we did some research of our own. First stop was the Durham Mining Museum website where we found that that a ‘colliery viewer ‘is the person who gives directions as to the method of working and ventilating the mine’. In modern terms, he was the colliery manager.
Some research on the accident revealed that it was caused when a cast-iron beam for a steam engine (used to pump water from the mine) fell into the mine’s single shaft, killing several men instantly and blocking off the escape route and ventilation for the others who died of suffocation.
So as the person responsible for the workings of the mine, was Joseph Humble in some way responsible for the accident? Or was there another reason for his change in career?
Contemporary newspaper reports and local records state that Mr Humble, as the pit manager, was one of the first people to see the full horror of the disaster underground. He was said to have been deeply affected and is quoted as having said, ‘Oh, my men, my canny men, they would have done ought for me and there they are all lying dead and cold’.
Could the trauma of disaster have led him to give up his respected position in the community (incidentally, he was also an enumerator on the 1861 census) and change career? Like you, we’ll have to watch the programme (screened tonight at 9pm on BBC One) to find out…