An unimaginable hell

Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler has been continuing his diligent work of researching the history of the Harrison Company and Family, looking into the darkest corners of the mining industry in Brownhills and its surrounds over a century ago. Peter is particularly concerned, as I am, that the truth of the conditions these men worked in should be told.

It’s easy to be almost taken in by the romance of the history commonly related; to be almost charmed by the stories of hard, salt of the earth types eking hard but honest existence in very poor communities, bound by comradeship and a huge sense of community. Whilst this is undoubtedly the case, on has to be careful. Read the following, and feel for these people. This was the reality, that of daily danger and the peril of sudden death.

Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to skip this post, but both myself and Peter feel these stories are often absent from the oral history, and need to be told.

I thank Peter for his careful, diligent research, and for the time taken to write it all up. Peter is one of several readers and contributors without whom, this blog would be a much poorer thing indeed.

Walsall Wood Mine Rescue Team in 1957. Note the canary. This was vital work, and these men were volunteers. Their equipment may have changed, but these chaps were channeling the same spirit as those in Pedro’s article. It must have been awful work. Image by Walsall Local History Centre.

Peter wrote:

Continuing my reading of the book, ‘William Harrison Company Limited’ by Mick Drury (2006), I came to the short section on Highbridge Colliery. It was said to be opened around 1850 and closed after 1925. The lease included 55 cottages mainly in the Coppice Lane area at an annual rent of £3 each. There was a water engine situated at the Colliery.

The book records the disaster of 1871 at this Colliery:

In 1871 three men were drowned when sand and gravel, from overlying unconsolidated deposits, broke into the workings and inundated the pit. The bodies were recovered and placed in cotton wool lined coffins where they rested in the Jolly Collier public house. The bodies were stained red by the sand and gravel making a stark contrast to the white cotton wool.

I looked at the Coal Mining Historical Research site, alerted to by Andy Dennis, but could not find a record. I then looked in the Newspaper Archives and found what was a really harrowing account of the events; it is not easy reading, in fact it is truly shocking, but I think we owe it to the Dead Souls to recount the report in order to show the dangers they faced each day of their working lives.

2nd June 1871 Birmingham Post, ‘The Highbridge Colliery Inundation…Recovery of the bodies’:

The bodies of the three unfortunate individuals who were entombed in Mr E Cropper’s pit at Highbridge, near Pelsall, on the 29th of March last, have, after more than two months of incessant and perilous labour been recovered and brought to the surface…

…It had been discovered that the men had broken through some brickwork and made their way into some old “cross” workings. From the point where the poor fellows broke through several roadways radiate, and there was nothing to show which road the men had taken; but after a consultation between the Government Inspector and the mining engineers associated together in the work of exploration, the working of clearing of sand was proceeded with, with the result stated above, the bodies being found on Wednesday night firmly wedged together in a small working in the rib side, not more than 18in square.

It was evident that in the hope of escape they had taken one direction towards the main road, and being met by sand and water, had turned back and sought an outlet in another direction, where they met with another stream and sand, and completely cut off from the outside world. Appearances would seem to show that all three had struggled to get through the small working before mentioned, which was barely sufficient to allow the passing of one person, and had been overtaken by the sand and water and suffocated; but on the other hand there may be a possibility they may have expired elsewhere and been carried along by the rush of the sand to the spot where they were found. The men lay beneath the boy, and so firmly were they embedded, the sand had to be chipped away, bit by bit, with chisels, and it was not until half past six yesterday morning that the bodies were set free; they were then placed in coffins which had been sent down for their reception, taken to the surface, and removed to the White Lion.

It’s fascinating to see that these teams were the subject of immense pride and competition between pits and that competitions were held. These men must have been the pride of their communities and indeed, of the Chase Coalfield. Taken from ‘Around Pelsall and Brownhills in old photographs’ by David F. Vodden.

The names of the deceased are Joseph Williams (27) unmarried, Highbridge; Edward Reeves (13) Highbridge; and Croxall (24) unmarried of Bloxwich.

…Decomposition had commenced, but had not proceeded to any great extent, and the heads of the ill-fated men showed injuries that had been caused, it may reasonably assumed that, either by their struggle to get through the aperture where they were found, or by their frantic rushing along the low workings in which they were involved after they had broken through the brickwork.

An air passage, into which they had got after the catastrophe, and into which the sand had not penertrated, bore traces of their footmarks, as if they had hurried to and fro repeatedly; but taking all the circumstances of the case in to account, there seems every possibility that their sufferings were not prolonged, as we’re feared at the beginning of the week, but happily were short. Some idea of the amount of work which the recovery of the bodies involved, may be judged by the fact that the main road is 197 yards long, and the side road, at which the men were at work, 130 yards long. The men came down this road a distance of about 90 yards to get into the old workings, and when found were about 284 yards from the pit bottom. It must also be borne in mind that the work has been carried on during the greater part of the time at risk of further irruption of sand and water. Too much praise cannot be given to those who have been engaged in the hazardous task, from the engineers in superintendence of the undertaking to the humblest

The next day on the 3rd of June the Post gives a detailed report on the Inquest at which the Jury reached a verdict of Accidental Death, and cautioned the mine manager. It is worth reading as many would certainly disagree.

The manager was responsible to Messrs Cropper and Co, who had taken over from Messrs Grey and Wooton the previous year, but no mention of the Harrison family. I would therefore assume that the Harrison family have the lease and subcontract, so that they can focus their attentions at Aldershawe.

It also came to light that individual men would not complain as they were in fear of being dismissed.


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12 Responses to An unimaginable hell

  1. Clive says:

    I believe strongly that the truth should be told, never mind the romancing of the past. Thank you Bob and Pedro.
    Best wishes Clive.

  2. Caz says:

    Well done Peter and Bob on such a fabulous post.I think the title says it all. it must have been hell down there and i can believe men didn’t complain for fear of losing their jobs.I say men but Edward Reeves, was a child…could you imagine the uproar at sending a 13 year old down a mine, to do a full days work today???? it would be unthinkable.
    As i’ve mentioned before Bob, my moms brother was crushed to death down the mine at the age of 16.From what she told me he was alone at the time and it was implied he must have had a fit and fallen into the machinery. She said my Gran stood up [at the inquest, i assume] and shouted out that her son had never had a fit in his life, and i’m quite sure she said it was in the newspaper about it at the time. I’ve tried to find the article but had no success so far.
    Brilliant reading …but so sad. You can’t help but wonder what they went through prior to their deaths or the heartache for the families left behind.

    • Hi Caz

      Thanks for that. Very touching. Thank you. It’s why we all do this. Peter is a star and I love where he’s going with his research: the warts and all approach is so important. Sometimes, we need to counter the mythology.

      If you have an approximate date for your Uncle’s accident, we could see what we can find if you like? Just a thought.

      Can I say too, just how good it is to see you here again. I was afraid I’d upset you with something. Meant to say last week, but so busy. I can’t reply to half the stuff I’d like to – well, I could, but I’d never have time for the posts!

      Cheers, Caz


  3. Caz says:

    Hi Bob,no you hadn’t upset me…..i just stray sometimes lol but i still regularly come back and read through the blog, even when not posting myself. it’s very informative and i thouroughly enjoy finding out more about our area.
    Thanks for the offer of help,i’m not that good at researching things on the web…i tend to go round and round in circles lol i appreciate how busy you are with the blog, work, the biking and everything else, but if you do get any spare time, i’d be very grateful for your help.I have always been told that his name was George Carpenter [also the name on his gravestone] and he was killed 24th August 1942,but i’ve just checked the Free BMD records to confirm the the date and can only find a William G Carpenter, death registered Sept 1942 at Cannock 6b 387 , age 16.I checked births and sure enough it is William G [mothers maiden name Cole] registered June 1926 at lichfield 6b 754 so all this time i’ve been searching for George and its William lol no wonder i go round in circles lol
    keep up the good work and best wishes Caz

    • Pedro says:

      Drawn a blank with the name or any colliery accident in 1942.

      This would cover the Staffs Sentinal, Advertiser and Chronicle, B’ham Gazette, Post and Journal, Lichfield Mercury and Tamworth Herald.

      There is a chance that it may have been recorded in a more local paper and many are not on the Archive.

      Things like this seem to be picked up by the Press, especially if there is an inquest. A little more information may make a difference.

      Regards Pedro

      • Caz says:

        Thank you so much for trying Peter…very much appreciated
        i have always believed that the accident was at the ‘coppy pit’ but I could be wrong. There are younger siblings still alive, but the youngest would only have been 4 when he died, but i will ask when i see them. The oldest sister,sadly passed away this year aged 94, and she told me that on the day of his death, his dog followed him to work and he had had to bring it home and then run to work because he was late. Their dad [a miner who worked a different shift] was apparently talking to mates on Ogley Corner, when they saw other miners approaching, They knew instantly that it meant the pit had shut because there had been an accident and it was one of these miners that told him his lad was dead. My own mom,aged 15 at the time, was off work sick, recovering from scarlet fever, when her dad came home and broke the news to her Mom…..she said she’d never forget her moms screams that day.
        Thanks again for your help, and thank you for such a wonderful, thought provoking but sad article. best wishes Caz

        • carol slater says:

          I too have been tracing George he was my mothers cousin and his first name was William.Mom is still alive and remembers the day poor George died it was at the coppy pit Walsall Wood he had got caught in the winding wheel.I can not find any articles about it either.Hard wishes

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