Lest We forget

courtesy of BBC online

Like many people today I’ve been pretty much glued to the television screen,watching the Chilean Miners being brought out,one by one,to the surface.

* * * * * *

We live in an old farmworkers cottage.  It dates from around 1820 and has always been inhabited by the working poor. That would include us. 

The couple that lived here before us lived here for over forty years. They raised a family here; they raised a fine vegetable garden.  She stayed at home and gardened; cooked and kept house.  He was a Miner.

When we viewed the house there was a certificate hanging upon the living room wall. Years served down the pit.  There were a lot of years – thirty,maybe?

This country used to be filled with Mines, and Miners.

* * * * *

As as teenager growing up in a grim Northern backwater in the economically even grimmer nineteen eighties, I remember clearly the day that Arthur Scargill and the Miners lost their fight.

I remember feeling that something else had been lost that day; that something else had shifted and that things would never be the same again.  It was the day that someone else had won and that we became disenfranchised .  If I’m honest, I’m not sure that I have ever felt franchised since .

* * * * *

I feel an affinity with Wales. I understand the history,the mining.

*  *  *  *  * 

The sound of a Colliery band makes me cry.

* * * * *

On September 22nd 1934 there was an explosion at Gresford Colliery in North Wales. 

women and children waiting at the pithead

I don’t usually lift  accounts word for word but I have with this one.It’s from Wikipedia. It didn’t seem right to take anything out. 

‘ Work began sinking the pit at Gresford in 1908 by the United Westminster & Wrexham Collieries. Two shafts were sunk, the Dennis (named after the pit’s owners, the industrialist Dennis family of Ruabon) and the Martin, which were 50 yards (46 m) apart. Work was completed in 1911; the mine was one of the deepest in the Denbighshire coalfield with the Dennis shaft reaching a depth of about 2,264 feet (690 m) and the Martin shaft about 2,252 feet (686 m).

By 1934, 2,200 coal miners were employed at the colliery, with 1,850 working underground and 350 on the surface.

Three seams were worked at Gresford, the Crank, Brassey, and Main seams. The accident would occur in the Dennis section of the Main seam. The Dennis section was itself divided into six “districts”: the 20’s, 61’s, 109’s, 14’s and 29’s districts, along with a very deep district known as “95’s and 24’s”.[1] All these districts were worked by the longwall system. 20’s and 61’s, which were furthest from the shaft, were still worked by hand, while the remaining districts were mechanised.

Prior to the accident, it had been noted that ventilation in some districts was possibly inadequate: in particular, it was noted that 14’s and 29’s districts were poorly ventilated. It was also stated, in the report after the accident, that the main return airway for the 109’s, 14’s and 29’s districts was far too small at 4 feet by 4 (according to one witness).[2] Evidence was given that 95’s and 24’s district, at 2,600 feet deep, was uncomfortably hot.[1] There were also numerous breaches of regulations regarding the firing of explosive charges in 14’s district, taking of dust samples, and other matters.[3] The colliery had made an operating loss in 1933, and the pit manager, William Bonsall, had been under pressure from the Dennis family to increase profitability.[4] He had spent little time in the Dennis section of the pit in the months before the disaster, as he was overseeing the installation of new machinery in the mine’s other section, the South-Eastern or Slant.[1]

Subsequent to the accident a number of theories were advanced in the Report as to the explosion’s exact cause: Sir Stafford Cripps, the miners’ legal representative, suggested that an explosion had been triggered in 95’s by shotfiring (the firing of explosive charges) near a main airway. The miners’ appointed Assessor also surmised that a large quantity of gas had accumulated at the top of the face in 14’s district, which was then ignited by an accident with a safety lamp or by a spark from a coalcutter. The legal representatives of the pit’s management, however, suggested that firedamp had accumulated in the main Dennis haulage road beyond the Clutch (a junction on the main drift where the underground haulage machinery was located) and which was ignited at the Clutch when a telephone was used to warn miners of the influx of gas.[5] This interpretation sought to deny that poor working practises

The explosion

On September 22 at 2:08 a.m. a violent explosion shook the Dennis section of mine, over a mile from the bottom of the shaft, and a fire took hold. At the time a total of 500 men were working underground at the colliery on the night shift. The night overman Fred Davies, who was on duty at the bottom of the shaft, telephoned the surface and Bonsall, the manager, immediately went into the mine to try and establish what had occurred. Workers in the mine’s other section, the Slant, were called to the pit bottom and ordered out of the mine.[6] It was quickly reported that parts of the main road from the Dennis section were on fire beyond the Clutch and that a large number of miners, up to half of those on the shift, could have been trapped in the affected districts

Six men from the Dennis section’s 29’s district had made a remarkable escape. They felt the explosion while sitting taking a break about 300 yards from the Clutch, and were advised by a colleague to leave the mine via the “wind road”, the 29’s air return drift.[7] Around 30 men working in the 29’s district gathered and were told to follow the initial party of six, who went ahead attempting to fan the air to mitigate the effects of the deadly afterdamp; however, when looking back, the leading group soon realised that the rest of the men had not followed them. After a long and difficult escape up 1 in 3 gradients, several ladders, and past several rockfalls once rejoining the main drift, the six miners met up with Andrew Williams, the under-manager, who along with Bonsall had immediately descended the shaft on being notified of the explosion.

Within a few hours of the first explosion, large crowds of miners and relatives had gathered in silence at the pit head, waiting for news to come. Volunteer rescue teams from Gresford and Llay Main collieries tried to enter the mine, but were initially hindered by the ferocity of the fire and a lack of fire fighting equipment and water. Three members of Llay no. 1 rescue team, the first to enter the mine after the explosion, were killed after being overcome by gas after being ordered to proceed up the mile-long return airway of the 20’s district. The Llay team’s leader, John Charles Williams, after finding the airway ahead of them narrowing to 3 feet by 3 feet and less, tried to save another member of the team by dragging him for over 40 yards towards safety before being overcome by gas himself.[1] Williams was the only survivor from this team; he was said by his family to be the man who later wrote the anonymous broadside ballad “The Gresford Disaster“, which was highly critical of the mine’s management.[8]

Further rescue attempts

As the Llay team’s attempt to gain access via the 20’s return airway had proved fatal, and the previous escape route from 29’s was found to be full of afterdamp, rescue efforts concentrated on trying to fight the fire in the main road. There was a large fire and rockfalls at the entrance to 29’s, which prevented the escape of not only any men in that district, but in all the other districts.[9] The miners in the most northerly districts, 20’s and 61’s, would have been over a mile on the wrong side of the fire.

Large numbers of rescue workers and firemen were sent into the mine that day, along with ponies to help clear debris. Throughout that evening and night, hopes were raised as the fire seemed to be being brought under control; it was announced that rescue teams hoped to soon reach the miners in 29’s, the nearest district beyond the Clutch.[9] However, by the following evening it was realised that given the extremely hazardous conditions in the mine, and several further explosions on the far side of the fire, it was impossible that anyone within the Dennis section could have survived, and it was announced that that the shaft would be capped as it was too dangerous to try and recover further bodies.[7]

Further explosions occurred during which one of the seals on the shaft blew out and a surface worker was killed by the flying debris.

Events after the accident

The wage packets of the dead miners were docked quarter of a shifts pay for failure to complete the shift.

Only eleven bodies were recovered from the mine. Inquests recorded the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning. The Dennis section of the mine was never reopened and the bodies of the remaining 254 victims were not recovered.

In September of that year 1,100 Gresford miners signed on the unemployment register. Relief funds were set up by the Mayor of Wrexham, the Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire and the Lord Mayor of London, raising a total of over £500,000 for the dependants of the victims.

An inquiry opened on October 25, 1934 and highlighted management failures, a lack of safety measures, bad working practices and poor ventilation in the pit. The miners were represented at the Inquiry by Sir Stafford Cripps; the mine owners, mindful of the fact they could face criminal charges, hired a formidable team of barristers including Hartley Shawcross.[4] Recovery teams entered the sealed pit in 1935 in connection with the Inquiry; however the Company allowed only its own officials to enter the Dennis districts, citing dangerous conditions, and the victims’ bodies remained sealed in the pit. It was widely perceived that these actions were a deliberate attempt by the mine’s owners to cover up any remaining evidence of their culpability, as it meant that any theories as to the explosion’s cause could not be conclusively proven.[4] The colliery reopened six months after the disaster with coal production resuming from the South-East section in January 1936.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir Henry Walker, issued its findings early in 1937. The two Assessors chosen by the miners and by the pit’s management, and the barristers representing them, gave widely different suggestions as to the explosion’s cause. In the absence of any proof, due to the Dennis section remaining sealed, Walker drew very cautious conclusions.

In a debate in the House of Commons in February 1937, subsequent to the issue of Walker’s report, the politician David Grenfell condemned the management of the colliery, stating the miners’ testimonies had told:

…of lamps having been extinguished by gas, blowing the gas about with a banjack, of protests and quarrels about firing shots in the presence of gas. There is no language in which one can describe the inferno of 14’s. There were men working almost stark naked, clogs with holes bored through the bottom to let the sweat run out, a 100 shots a day fired on a face less than 200 yards wide, the air thick with fumes and dust from blasting, the banjack hissing to waft the gas out of the face into the unpacked waste, a space 200 yards long and 100 yards wide above the wind road full of inflammable gas and impenetrable for that reason.[1]

Later in 1937 court proceedings were started in Wrexham against the Pit Manager, the Under-Manager and the United & Westminster Collieries Limited, the owners of the mine. Aside from the evidence of poor working practices, it was discovered that Bonsall had after the accident instructed an assistant surveyor, William Cuffin, to falsify records of dust samples when none had actually been taken.[2] The court however dismissed most of the charges, finding the mine’s management guilty only of inadequate record-keeping, and Bonsall was fined £150 plus costs; the mine’s owners were never called to give evidence. Bonsall, despite being calculatedly portrayed as a ruthless and cynical manager by Cripps and others, is likely to have been more of a “weak man driven beyond his capabilities”[10] and who was reduced to a state of extreme exhaustion and stress by over 20 hours of examination at the inquiry. The Under-Manager, Williams, was singled out for praise in that unlike other officials he was found to have made a genuine attempt to improve working conditions for the miners since taking the job.

Cripps used the evidence given at the inquiry to call for nationalisation of the coal industry. This eventually occurred in 1947, when the pit, along with others in the country, was taken over the by the National Coal Board. As part of the takeover agreement, nearly all the operating records and correspondence relating to Gresford Colliery were deliberately destroyed.

Gresford Colliery finally closed on economic grounds in November 1973 and the site was developed as an industrial estate. In 1982 a memorial to the victims of the disaster was erected nearby; it was constructed from the wheel from the old pit head winding gear.’

* * * * *

166 women were widowed and 299 children left fatherless from The Gresford Pit Disaster.

The Gresford Disaster Memorial - this image taken by a miner (now deceased)has been freed up for use by any individual.

 Lest We Forget.

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About In a Welsh Garden

Artist,Illustrator,Pro-face and body painter,Blogger and Happy Gardener : )
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7 Responses to Lest We forget

  1. Kay says:

    This is just one of the examples of why we live in the good days now. ‘Good OLD days’ indeed! It so annoys me when I hear that phrase. I’m glad me and mine live in this century for oh, so many reasons.

  2. The wage packets of the dead miners were docked for failure to complete the shift… What?! Sadly, I could see that happening today.

    Granddad was a miner and I often think of the stories he used to tell us about his working day, whenever I think I’m badly off or am having a rough time… sitting at my desk, typing.

    I’m so pleased that for once the news focussed on people who genuinely have a difficult and dangerous job. It’s been a story that’s made me think about how lucky I am and that I should be grateful for everyone and everything in it.

  3. Hi Kath, I agree about it being such a positive fact that the news focused on people who have difficult and hard jobs – and who are having to do them for the money, to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Also, obviously, that the outcome in Chile was positive,Thank God. It was a joy to see what human beings can achieve ,together,for the common good – when so much of what is reported just makes you despair of human nature…

    I totally agree re: feeling lucky. I have always felt lucky to be born into the wealthy Western World, at this time (from a general health/education/freedom of speech/cultural perspective at least)- I try and look at things globally, and see how hard things still are for so many people living in other parts of the world. When I hear parents at my daughter’s school moaning about school giving out ‘too much homework’ or about having to wait an hour or two to be seen in A & E for a minor injury I just think you really don’t know how lucky we are,do you…..?

    I love that our garden was tended by a miner , that he relaxed there after being deep,deep underground. We havn’t changed much in the garden, deliberately so. I still feel his presence there,strongly.

  4. Wanderlust says:

    What a beautiful tribute to all those who lost their lives (or lost loved ones) in the Welsh mining disaster. Such a dangerous occupation.

    I wanted to thank you for your comment on my post over on Wanderlust. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the lovely comments. Very grateful.

  5. Hi Kristin,
    Thankyou so much for your lovely comment …. your post is amazing, I am not surprised that you have had so many comments, you deserve them. I shall return to read again,now that I have found your fab blog, thanks to the wonderful world of Twitter : )

  6. wanderlust says:

    Love Twitter. And enjoyed admiring your garden!

  7. The tragedy of all those men still lying where they fell. All those women, all those children. The stupidity of it all. I didn’t know about the Gresford Pit Disaster. Thanks for not letting it slip into history.

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