Lately, we’ve been talking here quite a bit about mine safety, and the dangers of mining to those employed to work underground, digging the black stuff out. With that in mind, and before I continue with the thread commenced by Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler, I think this remarkable piece of writing is worthy of consideration.
This harrowing account of the 1956 Walsall Wood Colliery Accident was scanned from the book ‘Coal Mining in the North East Section of Walsall Metropolitan Borough’ by Brian Rollins, ISBN 0-9550892-6-3. This remarkable book, like all local history works, is quite hard to come by now, but is a well-written and excellent record of the industry, through the eyes of a man who worked at Walsall Wood Pit in the latter years of it’s life.
Brian is an excellent writer and I recommend his books to anyone wanting to learn more about the history of mining in our area.
We have, of course, covered this dreadful incident a couple of times here on the blog; there’s the London Gazette report recording the medals awarded by the Queen to Schofield, Bywater and Joiner for their courage in this rescue, and there’s Brian Stringer’s own account of his experiences of the accident, too.
My thanks to David Evans for the spotting the piece and making the original scans, and to Richard Burnell who generously transcrible the work to text. Thanks, lads.
Brian Rollins wrote:
Heroics and Awards in the 1950’s
In 1953 Jimmy Tatton was awarded the Order of Industrial Heroism (the workers equivalent to a Victoria Cross) for bravery he showed in the rescue of a fellow mine worker at Walsall Wood Colliery.
1955 – An accident in the Bottom Robbins Seam
The ‘exploits’ of Ernie Passam have been chronicled elsewhere in this book – suffice to say that he was awarded a Workers VC and a British Empire Medal for his bravery.
To get a Workers VC is unusual but to get two at one colliery is relatively unique.
Fatal accident 9th October 1956
(As witnessed by the author)
The Charles Seam was accessed from the return road in the Five Feet Seam and an intake from the bottom Robins Seam. The coal was delivered by conveyor directly in to the spiral chute of the staple shaft via an inset in the Charles Seam.
Roadways in the Charles Seam were supported with 12 feet long (3.7m) 3.5” x 3.5” (88mm x 88mm) RSJ’s on round wooden pit props. Junctions of the roadways were supported by 15 feet (4.6m) long 6” x 5” (150mm x 128mm) RSJ’s double legged at each end with wooden pit props.
The team of men working the day shift were asked to stay over to carry out work with the cutter at a junction that had previously partially fallen and was temporally supported by a small hollow wooden chock made up of lengths of the support legs used in the seam. The team consisted of Lionel Walker aged 39, coal cutter operator; Edward Dorset, aged 41, shot firer; Geoffrey Roberts, aged 30, timberer; Leonard Davies, aged 26 assistant to Lionel Walker; and Leslie Coton, aged 29, timberer. Edward Hughes the Deputy supervising the team had finished instructing the men under the junction and at 3.50pm, he had walked away only about 15 yards when the junction suddenly and without any warning, collapsed.
(Here an ironic coincidence occurred, Charlie Cope was the usual Deputy in this seam, and from his experience at Coppice Colliery was used to the Bord and Pillar work. He suffered fractured ribs the day before this accident and was therefore unable to work on the fateful day, his place was taken by Ted Hughes. Charlie always felt a sense of guilt afterwards. Many miners’ stories recall such coincidences.)
The junction had fallen intact and was now sitting on the floor crushing the men. The hollow wooden chock was now around Lionel Walker trapping him, but it saved his life.
The Deputy telephoned out of the pit to report the accident to the Manager, George Schofield. The Manager asked myself (Brian Rollins) and my assistant (Arthur Renhard) to accompany him to the site of the accident. Armed with a plan we could judge the best way to tackle the fall. On arrival at the site we could hear Lionel Walker calling out. The manager at great personal risk, went over the fall; then assisted by Henry Joiner, Overman and Ted Bevan, Management trainee they carefully ‘timbered up’ a way over and through the fall. They called out the lengths of timber they required and my assistant and I knocked out spacing timbers from between girders and cut them to the length required with a bow saw.
Eventually the chock covering Lionel Walker was reached, he was curled up like a ball. Tea and sweets were passed to him. It was decided that the only way to release him was to carefully cut through the wooden chock members on one side with a saw blade. Lionel himself cut through some of the pieces. After releasing his trapped leg he was freed and lifted out over the fall and into the relative safety of the adjacent roadway. Approximately 7 hours after the incident happened Lionel was carried out of the mine on a stretcher and conveyed to the Walsall General Hospital.
The initial rescuers and myself came out of the mine on the next cage to Lionel via the No.2 Upcast Shaft. When the cage came to the surface I was amazed to see the pit top full of family members of the still un-recovered but deceased miners. This was a most harrowing moment, they obviously wanted news that would give them hope but it was difficult to pass them by knowing there was no good news to be had.
The recovery team was replaced by men from the night shift and they in turn by men from the following day shift. During the recovery of the bodies Fred Howdle sustained a broken leg when a rock fell on to him. The bodies of the doomed minders were reached by tunnelling under the fallen junction on the morning of Wednesday 10th October. Edward Dorset was pulled out at 3am followed by Geoffrey Roberts at 4am. It took several hours more to reach Leonard Davies and Leslie Coton by 7.15pm – all were carried to the surface.
It is the Surveyors duty to accurately record on a plan the details of all reportable accidents. I again arrived at the site at 6am whilst the rescue was still in progress. After recovery of the bodies I went into the tunnels driven in the floor of the seam, under the seam, under the collapsed junction, to measure the details. It took many hours over several days to prepare the plans required by the mines inspectorate.
The colliery was the focus of attention by the press – and no wonder – the death of 5 miners was the worst pit disaster for 26 years. A disaster fund was started for the benefit of the wives and families of those unfortunate miners so tragically killed. Many businesses organisations and individuals contributed and a concert was held at Brownhills Memorial Hall, all proceeds going to the fund.
Lionel Walker paid tribute to his rescuers and in particular Mr Schofield. He said “The position was so dangerous that Mr Schofield dare not return the way he went in over the fall. As the aperture was made larger I was able to see my rescuers and chat to them until that thankful moment when they got me out. I don’t remember much more, I was so relieved to get out.” The inquest in to the accident found no evidence of negligence and the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. The dependants of the men killed received quite a meagre awards by present day standards. The awards including £250 for each child were in the region of £4000 to £5000 per family. As a result of the rescue the British Empire Medal was awarded to Mr Schofield, George Bywater and Henry Joiner. Ted Bevan received the Queens commendation for brave conduct. Two other men on the following shift, Jack Cantrill and Fred Howdle, were awarded certificates of bravery from the Carnegie Hero Fund Trust. Following the accident the Mines Inspector banned four-way junctions in Bord and Pillar workings for some considerable time. This ruling was relaxed following the investigation and inquest.