The men below

A turn of the century photo of a distressed shaft at Walsall Wood Colliery. Image taken from 'Coal Mining in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and Aldridge' by Brian Rollins.

Eighty years ago today, on the 1st October, 1930, fourteen men died underground, as a result of a gas explosion at the Grove, or Brownhills Colliery. It is thought that the men perished when a naked light was struck in the shaft. I have featured this incident as a recurring theme over the past few weeks, and much has been written by others about the dreadful events of that autumn dawn, pictured in newsreel footage posted on this blog previously. The excellent site ‘Brownhills Past’, has the following to say on the subject:

<The Grove Colliery was the> Site of the worst mining disaster in Brownhills history. An explosion of gas killed fourteen men on the nightshift on 1st of October 1930. The explosion occured in the shallow coal district, 1.5 miles from the shaft bottom. There was a public inquiry into the accident which returned an open verdict as there was “Not sufficient evidence to prove how the explosion occured”. However it was found that five of the dead men were carrying contraband materials e.g matches and cigarettes, and as electricity and safety lamps were ruled out it was stated that somebody may have struck a light. The Grove was not known as a paticularly “gassy” pit and in most parts open lights were allowed. It was also stated that 11 of the men died from carbon monoxide poisoning, and 3 from injuries caused by the blast, 12 of the men may have lived for a while after the explosion.

The pit was opened in 1857 by William Harrison, who also sunk the Cathedral and Wyrley common pits.The pit closed in 1952.

A full report on the accident and subsequent enquiry, sourced from the Coal Mining History Resource Centre can be read here (.PDF).

This dreadful loss of life was a terrible blow to the town, and there are several photos of the funeral procession through Brownhills, featured on Chasewaterstuff’s blog. The wonderfully comprehensive history of St. James Church speaks of the mourning:

At 9:18 pm on 1st October 1930 a terrible explosion occurred in the Grove (Brownhills) Colliery beneath the “Fleur De Lys” public house. The funerals of ten of the miners who lost their lives in the disaster took place at St. James Church on 7th October. A solemn procession starting from the Council House made its way along the High Street into Church Road, (lined both sides by the whole of the Ogley Hay and Brownhills community), to the Church where Vicar W.E. Wibby held the funeral service. The miners were laid to rest in a mass grave divided into ten sections in Great Charles Street Graveyard with full military honours as six of the men had fought in the Great War.

These were dark events, but they were by no means unique; there were huge numbers of men and boys killed or maimed in the course of coal and mineral extraction throughout the victorian era, right through to the second world war. Conditions for these hard, determined people gradually improved – but it was not until the social and political upheavals in the early decades of the 20th century that major strides were made in either welfare, healthcare or health and safety. We have the campaigners, socialists and strikers of the period to thank for the legacy they left us, that nearly a century later, not one of us has to accept injury or death at work to be an occupational hazard.

The miners who died at the Grove pit were not unique. Many will speak reverently of their bravery, of their resilience, of their stoicism. But these were not special men, they were just ordinary working blokes, earning their living in a filthy, harsh and deadly industry. An essential industry that warmed homes, powered trains and ships and melted metal, but one which was riddled with shortcuts, dangerous practices, crooked mine owners and employee abuse. That those who died were somehow more than those who did not is an oft-repeated myth; men found work where they could, and the pits represented a relatively good living, more often than not followed by a living death from industrial respiratory diseases. Time and societal advances artificially separate us from them, yet had we been born of the period dominated by Old King Coal as they were, we’d be down the pits, too. The line we draw is thinner than ever we’d think.

Reflect on the victory that those communities fought for – an honest, safe day’s work for a living wage; democratic representation; full recourse after the unthinkable should happen. Today we relax with every modern comfort imaginable precisely because millions of workers like those lost deep under Wyrley Common fought for a better world. We must never ever forget what we are the beneficiaries of, nor the privations and hardships suffered in order that we might enjoy a brighter day.

As civic leaders and nostalgic historians erect pointless and irrelevant statuary to lost generations of the workers who fuelled both the industrial and social revolutions, politicians are hastily dismantling the institutions that those generations died in the creation of. Members of the government speak of the need to streamline the NHS, to end the perceived tyranny of the Health and Safety Executive. Our own Prime Minister talks darkly of the Welfare State. It is almost as if an opportunity has been seized.

If we let them destroy this priceless legacy, then we insult those men who today, we remember. The men below, the men of the foundry, factory floor and mill, didn’t suffer what they did to see this destroyed. We must be vigilant. Once the social state is lost, it won’t ever be put back.

Today I will raise a glass to fourteen lost men. Rest in peace, chaps. You may be gone, but you’re not forgotten.

The Grove Pit as surveyed around the mid 1920's. It stood on Lime Lane, just where the landfill is today. Click on the image for a larger version.

The Men Below

Steve Skaith / Mike Jones

Album, tour, albumen – you’re still picking at the shell
And you know you should be glad of the living
But it seems like a living hell sometimes
And on this playing stage you play so hard
But so much harder still – is the life beneath, down deep in the seams
Where your hotel nights are the stuff of the dreams
Of the men below

Imagine, having to fight
To work two miles down from the air and the light
And imagine, having to plead
That a job that can kill, is a job that you need

Darker blue this darkness, than a pale young miner’s eyes
Who has to see the convoy lights come shining
And can’t close off his surprise
With his one poor piece of paving, pressing hard against his palm
Knowing it might be the only way he’d ever get to spend another day
With the men below

And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust – to the men below?

And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust – to the men below?

And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust – to the men below?

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19 Responses to The men below

  1. Nice tribute Bob.

  2. stymaster says:

    I’ve seen that pic in the book you mentioned. Very, very scary.

    I’d like to re-state your message about what previous generations of workers fought for: fair, decent treatment. These days there’s legislation to protect workers in many ways, but without the actions of people like these we’d be in a sorry state, and given half a chance there’s people that would like all of these inconveniences removed in the name of profit.

    In many ways the Victorian age, for example, was great for this country, but if you were working class and had a unscrupulous employer, you were screwed, basically- the changes we’ve seen since then that make life much more comfortable are amazing.

  3. Sabcat says:

    Sabcat is at the boat yard on that map. The basins on the map are still there and are called the Grove. I wonder why it was called Brownhill colliery? It’s closer to Great Wyrley, Pelsall and Norton Canes than it is to Brownhills.

    • You’re not the first to ask that.

      It’s worth remembering that back then, Engine Lane ran from the Chester Road, over Wyrley common to Lime Lane in a straight line. The mine was operated by Harrison, who I believe was a Brownhills engineer. Certainly, his surveyor lived in a tied house Coppice Side. Harrison was considered a Brownhills concern, and Wyrley Common was thought to be in Brownhills/Ogley parish. Remember that the villages wouldn’t have been so big then, and Brownhills was skewed more to the northern end than it is now.

      Marklew’s farmhouse would have been near the level crossing, and that was considered Brownhills, which back then did concentrate around the Pelsall Road.

      Hope that helps


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  6. pedro says:

    Before my recent obsession with the Harrison family, as owners of the local Collieries, I new very little about the mining industry. But one thing that strikes me is that there is an untold history here.

    Bob touches on it in a subsequent post saying…”Those who would regard this industry with misty eyes behind rose-tinted spectacles outrage me..”

    Also in the comment by stymaster below…”In many ways the Victorian age, for example, was great for this country, but if you were working class and had a unscrupulous employer, you were screwed…”

    Maybe we can set the record straight in memory of the men that died in this disaster!

    On the subject of the naming of the Grove Pit (1852-1950), it seem to have been called Brownhills Colliery, Wyrley Grove Colliery and just Grove Colliery. (source William Harrison Ltd, by Mick Drury)

    Regards Pedro

  7. pedro says:

    Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 3rd Oct 1930…

    “The first body recovered was that of Jack Holland, a single man, who had supported his widowed mother. His father was killed in the same pit about 16 years ago.”

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