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.
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.
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.