Memorial Avenue in the town of Easington, County Durham, in north-east England looks like any other peaceful, verdant street. However, each of its 83 trees represents a life lost in a disaster that devastated the local mining community in 1951.
The oldest man to die that day was Frederick Ernest Jepson, who was still working at the age of 68. Frederick is the great grand uncle of WDYTYA? Magazine reader Christopher Jepson, who wants to honour his relation’s memory.
“It’s the 70th anniversary of the Easington Colliery Disaster on 29 May 2021,” explains Christopher, who lives in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. “I knew nothing of Fred’s life or death before I began tracing my Jepson history. Researching him has become something of an obsession for me.”
Fred’s story begins in 1882, when he was born in the Staffordshire mining village of Mow Cop. “He lived in a two-up, two-down cottage with his parents and eight siblings. There was no electricity, water came from a pump and they shared an outside toilet with neighbours.”
Fred followed in his father’s footsteps and left school to become a miner. “In those days, many young teenagers endured 12-hour shifts in the dangerous underground world. Wages were poor, working conditions appalling and serious injuries often occurred.”
Despite the hardships of life, all of Fred’s siblings survived into adulthood, although his older sister Sarah died aged 29. Fred grew up to be a tall, well-mannered young man.
Christopher’s great grand uncle married four times. His first bride was Ann Taylor, whom he wed in 1902 and went on to have a family with. Tragically, Ann became ill with tuberculosis and died in 1916. Fred was left with three children to care for aged eight, 12 and 14.
Some of his Jepson relatives had moved to Easington, where they found work in the coal fields. Fred decided on a fresh start and took his family to the north-east, where he joined the Easington Coal Company.
He met Isabella Watmough, a widow with an adopted son. They married in 1917, but tragedy struck again three years later when Isabella also succumbed to tuberculosis.
Fred later married Susannah Brignal, and they had two sons and a daughter named Rita. Sadly, Rita passed away when she was only 10 months old because of a dental problem and bronchial pneumonia. “It’s suspected that antiquated surgical methods were the real cause of Rita’s infection and demise.”
For the next 25 years, Fred continued to labour in the pit. Celebrations came as his sons and daughters married, and had families of their own. The happiness was punctuated by sadness, however, when Susannah died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1943. Fred remarried four years later to Florence Johnson, a widow with nine children.
On 29 May 1951, it was Fred’s turn to succumb to the biggest catastrophe of all – the Easington Colliery Disaster. An explosion took place 900 feet below ground, caused by a spark that ignited leaking firedamp (gas). A huge section of the roof crashed down on 81 men, including Fred, killing them all. Two rescue workers also lost their lives that day.
“I find it hard to comprehend the life that Fred led. However, as one of his granddaughters has pointed out, his life was far from a disaster. His family continues to expand and among his descendants are teachers, hospital workers, students with PhDs, a lawyer, a librarian and more.
“Fred survived turbulent times and was still fit enough to put a loaf of bread on the table at 68. After all that tragedy, it took a mining disaster to kill him. He was a remarkable man and should always be remembered.”