By Brian Elliott

Pen & Sword History. 175 pages. £14.95/$24.95. ISBN 978-1-47385-884-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

My mother was born in Whitehaven in the early 1900s, and her father was a miner. When I was young I was sometimes sent to stay with my grandmother in Whitehaven, though I never got to meet my grandfather, He had been killed in 1915 in France, and though my grandmother had married again to another miner, her second husband had died before I started visiting her. One of my uncles was still working in the mines in the late-1940s and early-1950s, and I have a faint memory of seeing him in his working clothes.

Spending time in Whitehaven, I picked up an awareness of how much a disaster in the mines could affect the local community. Whitehaven wasn’t a big town, so any problem which caused a large number of deaths could have a serious impact. There had been several mine disasters in the area, and the one I mainly knew a little about happened in 1910, when an explosion at the Wellington Pit resulted in the deaths of 136 miners. I suspect I heard more about it because my mother would have been around five in 1910, so she no doubt had memories of the atmosphere in Whitehaven at the time. And my grandmother’s house was not far from the pithead, and I could see it when I went to play on the beach. The mine workings had extended out, under the Irish Sea, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been trapped down there.

Brian Elliott’s survey of mine disasters excludes any when under five men lost their lives. But he gives some figures for deaths in total and says that over 1,000 a year were being killed in the early-1900s, with the figure rising to 1,453 in 1909. Mines in Wales were notoriously dangerous because of the “gaseous and highly inflammable steam coal” that they produced. But mining everywhere was a precarious job, and not made any safer by the fact that coal owners frequently cut corners when it came to safety. There were rules but they were often ignored, and a total of 30 mine inspectors were supposed to cover 2,700 collieries.

Explosions were the most frequent causes of disasters, and occurred when some sort of ignition took place as a spark or other sort of naked light came into contact with the gases that were an ever-present danger in mines. When the National pit at Wattsdown in Glamorganshire exploded in 1905, and the West Stanley in Durham in 1909, 119 and 168 men died respectively. It may be better to say men and boys. At Wattsdown, 33 of the dead were under the age of 15. Before those disasters 81 miners were killed in an explosion at the Universal mine at Senghenydd in Wales in 1901.

 I’ve just picked out a few of the larger disasters from a list of 44 that Elliott compiles for the 1900-1909 period. The other 41 involved explosions, roof falls, winding occurrences when the cages taking miners up and down the mine-shaft crashed to the bottom, accidents when new shafts were being sunk, and inrushes of water when it burst through from old seams and drowned all those who couldn’t scramble to safely quickly enough. In one such incident at a mine in the Forest of Dean, several miners died and three were trapped for five days before being rescued. As I said earlier, Elliott generally excludes any disaster with less than five dead, and there were plenty of those.

I mentioned the disaster at the Wellington Pit in Whitehaven, and later that same year the Pretoria mine at Westhoughton in Lancashire experienced an explosion that killed 344 miners, making it the largest loss of life in English coalfields. It was thought to have been caused by a build-up of gas that was then ignited by a faulty lamp. A reporter from The Times noted the effect on surrounding districts¸ where “every other house at Chequerbent and Wingates had its blinds drawn today, and few families have escaped losing one or more members. A Wingates family has lost the father and five sons”.

If the Pretoria tragedy was the worst in England, the events at the Universal Colliery at Senghenydd in Glamorganshire in 1913 established the record, if that’s the right word, for the most serious in Britain. 440 men and boys died. Elliott says that “the most astonishing and annoying feature of the worst disaster in British coalmining history was that the Universal Colliery Company, in its greed for profit, had blatantly ignored safety legislation in the new (1911) Coal Mines Act. A fine of only £24 was imposed on the manager whilst the owners got away with `compensation’ of just £10 and £5.5s.0d in costs following legal challenges in the courts”.

It’s difficult to know exactly how families that had lost a father or son, perhaps both, and possibly other relatives, got by when money stopped coming in. Welfare provisions were scanty, if they existed at all, and writing about the Podmore Hall (Minnie Pit) disaster in Staffordshire, where 155 miners and a member of the rescue team died, Bennett tells us that, “Despite what could be done by the miners’ union and contributions from a public relief fund, many families were reduced to a subsistence existence alongside their great personal distress”. He also notes that about a third of the fatalities were `boy miners’, teenagers with so much life ahead of them”. Bennett quotes from a poem, “The Miners,” written by Wilfred Owen about the Minnie Pit disaster.

Going back to Whitehaven, I see that 39 died at the Haig Pit in 1922 and another 13 in 1927. The same pit had 27 deaths in 1931, and the William Pit in Whitehaven registered 12 killed in 1941 and another 104 in 1947. But it wasn’t just Whitehaven, and looking down Bennett’s lists of disasters can make for painful reading. 266 miner died at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham in 1934, another 58 at Wharncliffe Woodmoor, Barnsley, 79 at Markham (Blackshale Pit), Chesterfield and 35 at Valleyfield, Culross, Fife. Again, I’m being selective and picking out the higher numbers of casualties. There were many others where six or eight or ten were killed, and no doubt quite a few below that cut-off point of five deaths that Bennett has established.

Following nationalisation of the mines in 1947 the situation seemed to improve, which isn’t to say that disasters stopped occurring. 80 men died at Creswell, Derbyshire in 1950, another 83 at Easington, West Hartlepool in 1951, and 47 at Auchengeich, Lanarkshire in 1959. And there were the handfuls of others at a variety of locations across the country. But the list for 1950 to 1959 is shorter than earlier ones. And the list for 1960 to 1969 is likewise comparatively short, though it still includes 45 killed at Six Bells (Arrael Griffin), Abertillery in 1960, and 31 at the Cambrian mine at Clydach in the Rhondda in 1965. 

Reading about all these disasters, the deaths, and all the heartaches they must have produced for the families of those killed and badly injured, can be a somewhat depressing experience. The only light comes from reading about the heroism and self-sacrifice of many of the miners, especially those in the rescue teams.

The arrogance and indifference of the mine owners is often shocking. Many of the accidents could have been avoided had proper safety precautions been in place. It’s true that there were occasions where the actions of a miner may have been the cause of a problem. The 1947 explosion at the Louisa (Morrison) Pit at Stanley, County Durham, was the result of someone lighting a cigarette. More than twenty men died, and what was referred to as “contraband”, materials like cigarettes and matches that they weren’t supposed to take into the mine, were found on the bodies of some of the victims.

There are tales of survival that lighten the narrative, and some anecdotes that bring out the tragedies of men trapped and aware that they’re going to die. Rescuers found a message, “Farewell Fanny old pet”, chalked on a rock when there was an explosion at the North Gawber pit, Barnsley, in 1935. And returning to Whitehaven and the Wellington Pit disaster of 1910, “chalked messages inscribed on doors and pieces of timber” showed that some of the miners were probably still alive when rescue operations were called off because it was deemed too dangerous to carry on.

The extensive illustrations in this book add to the poignancy of the situations described. There are photographs of crowds gathered outside various pits, anxiously waiting for news of survivors. Others show rescue workers bringing out bodies or assisting injured miner. Clippings of reports from old newspapers add a touch of authenticity in terms of the contemporary nature of the writing. In some cases photographic lists of those killed were produced by local firms and gave their names. Monuments erected in later years also listed the names of the dead. I couldn’t help remembering a couple of lines from Idris Davies’s long poem, The Angry Summer: A Poem of 1926: “For those who toil without a name/And pass into the night”. Some names have been remembered, though it often took their deaths for it to happen.    

And as I finished it and thought of the numbers of the dead, not to mention the maimed, and the families mourning their lost fathers and sons and brothers, I couldn’t help turning to an old poem, “We have fed you all for a thousand years”, credited to “an unknown proletarian”, and first published in radical magazines and newspapers in America in the early-1900s. It includes the lines, “Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,/Good God! We have paid it in full”. Those are words that could truthfully have been spoken by the people in all the mining towns and villages across Britain.