Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Condemned to life in total darkness beneath the Stadium of Light

I found these two photos amongst colour transparencies that I took back in 1994. They are of a little gammarid shrimp, similar to the species that live in ponds and streams everywhere, but this one has a very unusual story attached to it.

One day in late spring 1994, just before Monkwearmouth colliery, also known as Wearmouth colliery (see photos here), was due to close, I had a telephone call from a journalist on the Northern Echo who had been talking to some of the miners who were about to be made redundant. This was more than just another pit closure: Monkwearmouth was the last deep mine to close in the Durham coalfield and had been there for 178 years. It had once been the deepest coal mine in the world.

The miners told a story about shrimps that lived in pools of water at the bottom of the mine. The crustaceans had most likely been taken down there in water for the pit ponies and were well known to miners who had worked the seams in  the oldest shafts. 

At that time the deepest hole in the ground I've ever been down was at Cheddar caves, so the offer of a trip down to the bottom of the mine to collect some shrimps was too good to miss. At the bottom of the old shaft that had been abandoned for many years we found the shrimps living in the coal dust in pools of water, where they most probably fed on bacteria that lived on sulphur and fungi that lived on rotting wood. If you look at the photos above you can see grey coal dust in their digestive tracts. They had an aversion to light and when the beam of our helmet lamps fell on them they scuttled down into coal dust slurry. If you look at the enlargement of the eye (below) you can see that it had only a few, rather disorganised lenses, compared with a crustacean that lives in daylight like this one - these troglodyte shrimps may have been on their way to losing their redundant power of sight. 

We brought a couple of buckets of them up to the surface and kept them in a tank in my laboratory at Durham University. We had hoped to go back for more but British Coal demolished the winding tower with indecent haste before we could mount another expedition.

 This is the piece about the collecting trip that I wrote at the time for the Guardian Country Diary:

We entered the rusty cage of B Pit at Monkwearmouth colliery on a rescue mission, in search of an underground colony of shrimps that has persisted there since the shaft was opened in 1841. After a 12-minute descent we jerked to a halt 1080 feet underground, stepping out into caverns lined with crystals that glistened in our lamp beams. 

We found the colony, in a small black lagoon at a tunnel entrance littered with rusty picks and blocked by a collapsed roof. The half-inch-long shrimps dashed across the surface, thrashing through pools of light from our helmets and disappearing into the black ooze. These tiny crustaceans, familiar to generations of miners, live in a seasonless world of perpetual darkness and constant temperature, probably feeding on bacteria that grow on sulphur in the coal. Kenny Drysdale, the shaftsman who led us to them, told us that miners once supplemented the shrimp' diet with bread crusts. Within a few minutes we had scooped up as many animals as we could catch. The only other sign of life was a spider's web. Its builder, long since gone, must have been drawn down by the shaft ventilation system. 

In the tunnels we passed massive, rusty iron grates where controlled fires had once burned, to draw in cold air from above in the wake of their rising column of heat. Then, this pit must have resembled a scene from the underworld. The names of generations of miners were chalked or scratched on walls and beams in silent tunnels strewn with rusty pulleys and rails, thick with dust, shored up by props and baulks and boards and sealed with doors that hung from creaking hinges. 

Back on the surface, the rescued shrimps now live in my laboratory, thriving in an aquarium. Soon the unlucky ones will be sealed underground for ever, when the life of the colliery finally expires. Yesterday, I dropped a crust of bread in the tank. The shrimps swarmed around, tore crumbs off and retreated to their corners, just as Kenny said they would.
June 1994.

There's a rather sad postscript, which leaves me with an abiding sense of guilt. Soon after we brought the shrimps up our new laboratories at Durham University were completed and we had to move out of the old ones in a tearing hurry so that builders could move in. The shrimp tanks were due to be the last items to be moved but somehow someone mistook the tanks of grey water and coal slurry for rubbish to be disposed of, and tipped the water down the drain and threw the old tanks in the skip. So all that remains are a few specimens preserved in alcohol and, perhaps, the descendants of some that I had released into our garden pond.

Almost as soon as the pit was demolished and the site was cleared work began on  Sunderland Football Club's new Stadium of Light on the surface, immediately above. The population of shrimps is still down there, 1000 feet underground, nibbling away at fungi growing on rotting pit props and feeding on the sulphur bacteria, and will now remain there, in total darkness, for all eternity.


  1. Fascinating account Phil.
    Mind you, these days things seem to be pretty dark above ground at the Stadium of Light !

    1. Mining was a tough job but dragging Sunderland out of the relegation zone is going to be even tougher!

  2. I thought this was going to be a post about sacked Mackem managers.

    1. They used to say, in the great days of amateur football, that you could shout down any pit in the North East and call up a good centre forward - bet they wish Monkwearmouth pit was still open .....


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