Yesterday – Monday 14th October 2013 – was the centennial anniversary of the dreadful Senghenydd mining disaster, which took place in the Caerphilly county village when an explosion killed 439 miners and a rescuer at the Universal Colliery on 14 October, 1913.
Such a waste of life is unimaginable now, the effect of the loss of so many men from a small community – the breadwinners of their families – must have been immeasurable, leaving deep scars that spanned generations. I’ve written a great deal about the privations of miners locally and in the wider industry, and the threat to life and limb in those early years of mining was never far away.
While we mark such a horrendous tragedy, it’s also worth remembering that at that time – the early decades of the last century – lives were being lost or changed by injury every single day in the pursuit of coal. Each one of these incidents is worth of note. Powering industry and keeping Britain on the move took a heavy toll.
It’s with that in mind that Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler has undertaken research into the Wimblebury Colliery accident of 1927, and he’s come to the conclusion that the representations of this awful occurrence that currently exist may not be wholly accurate.
I welcome the opening of debate on this matter, and think Peter undoubtedly is on to something, and this isn’t the first time researches here have led to the questioning of ‘official’ accounts, the Pelsall Boiler Explosion being one, and the dreadful incident at Wyrley Common being another.
There is a controversial note to make here. I spotted some weeks ago that mining historian Fion Taylor had pointed out in his response to Andy Dennis that a disaster was defined as when five or more people died. With that in mind (and I haven’t found that distinction anywhere else, but it’s late as I type this), this event was an ‘accident’.
I’d be interested in reader views on that point.
My thanks, and I’m sure those of readers, too go out to Peter for a forensically researched and written piece that must have taken days to write. I am hugely proud to be able to post material of this quality here on the Brownhills Blog. Astounding stuff.
Readers of the Blog will know of my interest in the Coal Owners of the area, especially the Harrison family, and it was from another publication by the CCMHS, Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company and its Collieries (2006) that I came to the Wimblebury Pit Accident of the 14th of June, 1927.
In one of their other publications, William Harrison Company Limited, they had incorrectly described the disaster at the Blue Pit, Wyrley Common in 1861…
I decided to dig a little deeper into the accident of 1927, and came up with more questions than answers!
The CCMHS publication describes the Wimblebury Pit accident as follows…
A serious accident occurred on Tuesday, 14 June 1927 following the installation of the new winding engine. To enable the new winding engine to be installed, the colliery had been shut down for a week, but because of delays in commissioning the engine the colliery was also closed on the following Monday. Although the majority of miners now travelled underground via the Valley Colliery shafts, a small number of workmen employed in and around the Wimblebury pit bottom area still needed to travel the shaft. On the Tuesday morning during the second manriding run of the new engine, 20 miners were descending in the cage when an overspeed landing occurred, crashing the cage into the timber bulks at the shaft bottom. 14 of the men were injured, two of them so severely that they died of their injuries. At the subsequent inquest and enquiry the accident was attributed to a difference in the controls of the new engine from that of the old one and verdicts of accidental death were recorded.
The Lichfield Mercury for 1927 is not available online, and so I searched the National papers and found a few mentions of the accident on the following days.
Gloucester Citizen, 14th June 1927
NINE MEN INJURED
Cannock Chase, Tuesday.
Nine men were injured this morning by a winding accident at the Wimblebury Pit ofthe Cannock and Rugeley Colliery, Cannock Chase. Five of the men have a fracturedleg each. An Official of the Colliery Company stated this afternoon that none of the injured men was in a critical condition. ‘A slight over-wind caused the accident’ he said, ‘Work proceeded immediately afterwards.’
Western Daily Press, 15th June 1927
…The descending cage containing 19 men suddenly dropped to the bottom of the shaft. The cage was within five feet of the pit bottom, and 14 men an youths were injured. Each of 5 had a leg fractured. Two or three others sustained injury to the spine, and all were removed to hospital. They were reported last evening to be going on satisfactorily.
Making a Google search I came straight upon Hansard for the 28th of June, 14 days after the accident…
June 1927 — Commons Sitting — COAL MINING INDUSTRY.
CANNOCK AND RIMELEY COLLIERIES (ACCIDENT).
HC Deb 28 June 1927 vol 208 CC192-4 193
Mr. W. M. ADAMSON asked the Secretary for Mines whether he has noted the evidence given and the statement of the jury at the inquest on two miners who were killed in a winding-cage accident at the Cannock and Rugeley collieries, Wimblebury, recently; whether he is satisfied that adequate precautions were taken with the working of the new winding engine prior to the accident; and whether he will take steps to, have a full inquiry into the matter?
Colonel LANE FOX I have seen the evidence and the jury’s statement, as well as a full report from the inspector who investigated this unfortunate accident. There is no doubt as to its cause; the winding engineman candidly admitted his mistake. Proper precautions were taken in installing the new engine, but I am inclined to agree with the jury’s view that this engineman should have had more practice with it before winding men.
Mr. ADAMSON Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman answer the last part of the question as to whether a further inquiry will be made with a view to avoiding such accidents where lack of practice is evidently the cause?
Colonel LANE FOX No, Sir; I think the inquiry by the inspector was sufficient. There was no doubt about the facts. They were admitted.
Colonel DAY Can the right hon. and gallant Gentleman say how many men were injured besides the two men who were killed?
Colonel LANE FOX The hon. Member had better put down a question. I cannot say exactly.
Mr. ADAMSON Was not the inquiry only with regard to the death of the two men and as to how the accident happened, and not as to who might be responsible?
Colonel LANE FOX No, Sir. I think the whole thing was gone into, and the cause of the accident to the two men who were killed would equally be the cause of the accident to the
Mr. ADAMSON Is not the management responsible for putting on an engine a winder who has not had actual practice?
Colonel LANE FOX Yes, Sir. I quite agree that it was unfortunate that the man had not had more practice, but he was not forced to do anything. It was at his own option that he took this risk, as he had had a good many preliminary windings of coal only and felt himself fully competent to do the work of winding men.
Mr. KIRKWOOD I would like to ask the Secretary for Mines if he does not think that here is something which has to do with these accidents. I have four pay leaves which came up on Saturday from Kirkaldy and Dumfriesshire. The first pay leaf is 4d. for a week, a Id. for a week, 14s. lOd. for a week, after all the deductions are taken off, and 13s. 7d. Is not that the reason why there are accidents in the mines—because the miners are being starved to death?
Later on the 27 July there were questions asked in the House of six winding accidents in which the cage struck the shaft bottom which had been reported in the last 6 months…Wimblebury was described… overwind due engineman inadvertently moving reverser in favour of engine when intending to check it.
William Adamson (2 April 1863 – 23 February 1936) was a Scottish trade unionist and Labour politician. He was Leader of the Labour Party between 1917 and 1921 and served as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1924 and between 1929 and 1931 in the first two Labour administrations headed by Ramsay MacDonald
Lieutenant-Colonel George Richard Lane-Fox, 1st Baron Bingley PC (15 December 1870 — 11 December 1947), was a British Conservative politician. He served as Secretary for Mines between 1922 and 1924 and again between 1924 and 1928.)
I then took off with a mate to Lichfield to see what the Lichfield Mercury had to say, and here is their account form the 17th June 1927, the first issue after the accident.
PIT ACCIDENT ON THE CHASE… 14 Men Injured
14 men were injured due to a winding accident on Tuesday morning at the Wimblebury pit of the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company, Hednesford. Five having a leg fractured.
(The names of the men removed to the Hednesford Accident Hospital, and their suspected injuries are listed)
The accident occurred when the men were being lowered into the workings for the day shift. 19 men were on the cage at the time, five of whom escaped injury. The pit had been closed for the whole of Whit week in order to allow of the installation of a new and more powerful winding engine than the one that had been used for a few years.
Captain TV Peake, manager of the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery, stated that the affair was a pure accident, due probably to the admission of steam to the engine when the cage was within about 5 feet from the bottom.
All sorts of extravagant stories soon got about as to the results of the accident, and a good number of people assembled at the Accident Home…. and Captain Peake did his best to ease the minds of the wives and mothers who were anxious to hear the latest news about the patients.
The Pit is within half a mile of the Accident Home, and the injured men were transported to the institution by the Colliery ambulance.
Subsequently winding operations were continued at the Pit as usual.
An official of the Colliery Company stated that none of the men were in a critical condition. ‘A slight over wind caused the accident,’ he said ‘work procceded immediately afterwards.’
We could only find one further mention of the accident in the Lichfield Mercury, and that was in the next edition of the 24th of June:
PIT CAGE CRASH DEATH
The death has taken place at Wolverhampton hospital of John Wilkes of Holyhead Lane, Walsall who was injured in the Wimblebury pit cage crash on Tuesday last week.
Wilkes was first admitted to the Walsall Hospital but later transfered to Wolverhampton. He was taken to Walsall in the Cannock and Rugeley colliery ambulance, and there travelled with him Arthur Sammons of Cannock Wood, another colliery employee. A blood transfusion was found needed and Sammons allowed 16 oz of blood to be transfused into the veins of Wilkes. This courageous act however unavailing.
Someone more qualified than myself has already made an attempt to give a version of the accident, and that is Jack Harrison in his book of ‘The King of Norton Canes’ (1990), which has featured on this Blog. On reading the whole book you may come to the conclusion that artistic licence (sorry David!) has been used in some of the chapters, such as the one concerning the King of Norton Canes. But in Chapter 5 describing this incident, the names, along with others, are identical to that of the Lichfield Mercury. Did Jack just elaborate on the account of the Lichfield Mercury?
I don’t think anyone has yet actually identified Jack, but by his picture in the book he could well have been a lad when these events took place. His account could well be as the folks saw it back then? A strange coincidence is that the other fatality was a William Harrison, may be a relative?
Here is a brief summary of the chapter…
Wimblebury Colliery had a reputation for being one of the safest pits on the Chase. In 1927 this was to change. Bank holidays came and went but they were not always welcomed by the workmen, especially those (the majority) who were signing part time on the dole. For a bank holiday meant that no money was payable from either pit or dole. Although this day could be included in calculating the three off in six system as a ‘coupling up’ day and so making the remaining two days eligible for dole benefit, it did not count as a pay day. It was small wonder that the notice which was written in large print on the pit head notice board was not greeted with much enthusiasm. It read…
Owing to the installation of new winding engines this pit will be off until further notice.
At least ten days will be required to complete this work, signed MANAGER
…For a few moments there was no reply, and then the bell rang denoting that someone was there to answer the telephone. There was hushed silence as the Captain (Peake) was heard talking to someone. After a few minutes he emerged and holding up his hand he silently requested their attention. ‘I’ve been in touch with the pit bottom onsetter,’ he said, ‘and he assures me that there is nobody killed or seriously injured. Although naturally they are all very shocked.’
‘Come off it, gaffer,’ said one. ‘There’s got to be some of them hurt bad. Tell we the truth.’
His words were ignored until someone else called, ‘Who are yer tryin to kid, gaffer? I’ll bet that some of ’em have been killed.’
‘Nobody could have stood a drop like that,’ another voice added. ‘The cage must av dropped nearly thirty feet.’
Joe Sands turned to the man beside him. ‘I bet there’s a tidy mess down there. Nobody hurt? Who does he think he’s kidding?’
…Some of the officials examined the condition of the cage, and although the gates were damaged there appeared to be little damage to the cage itself. It was considered to be in a reasonable condition and capable of being put back into operation. Several trial runs were made up and down the shaft with empty cages. Satisfied that it was safe for men to travel, Mr. Hughes and a number of first aid men carrying equipment and blankets went onto the cage and were sent down. There were more than a hundred men and boys waiting on the surface and they had formed into little groups discussing the situation. ‘You can please yourself what you do,’ said one man, ‘but I for one are going back home.’
‘I’ll come with yer,’ said another. ‘I ain’t going to risk my neck.’
However, before they reached the lamphouse the Captain went across to them. ‘Come on, lads,’ he pleaded, ‘I’ve told you nobody is seriously injured. The cages are safe now. Let’s be having you down the pit.’
There were murmurs of disapproval from the men. ‘There’s nobody seriously hurt, you say? Come off it, gaffer. Do you think we’re a lot of nitwits? If there’s nobody hurt what do they want all that first aid stuff for as well as the first aid men? We ain’t that simple, boss. You may as well tell we the truth.’
‘I’ll tell you the position as it’s been told to me,’he conceded. ‘I have to admit that there are casualties, how many and to what extent I don’t know, but I have been assured there are no fatalities. I tell you what I’m prepared to do,’ he announced. ‘If the rest will go down, I’ll go down with the first run.’
As the casualties were brought up the shaft the men from the surface went down on the opposite cage. One by one the stretcher cases were brought to the surface and transported to hospitals or the Accident Home. Since the Wimblebury Colliery did not possess any ambulance of its own the victims were transported by vehicles sent from other pits, and a number of men were carried away in an open lorry.
…That incident remained a talking point for long afterwards, especially as a similar accident had occured at the nearby Jerome’s pit only a few months earlier. There the accident resulted in several men being badly injured, among them Alf Watson who suffered numerous fractured bones and Holy Dick who sustained a fractured spine and never worked again.
…But an official was sent to the gates to reassure the crowd that no-one had been killed or seriously injured. They were all too familiar with such words and greeted him with a hostile reception. By now the crowd had reached several hundreds and word had passed from mouth to mouth that there were fatalities among the victims. In order to allay their anxieties the official allowed one man to see each casualty as they arrived at the gate to ascertain his name and if possible the extent of his injuries.
…the crowd dispersed, some grief stricken and others relieved that their menfolk were not among the victims. A small number lingered awhile until they saw that the winding wheels were turning again and coal was once more being brought to the surface. Then they too went away. An official enquiry would have to be held by one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Mines. The men had little faith in any inspector’s findings. From past experience they were aware that many months would elapse before the findings would be released to the general public. Those who had witnessed the incident talked among themselves, but they were careful to hold their tongues when any official was about. ‘Was the accident caused by human error? Or had a fault developed in the installation of the new machinery?’
Most of the witnesses considered that the engineman was at fault, but they were careful not to denounce the man publicly. The cages and the shaft were thoroughly examined by the engineer and passed as safe to allow coal to be drawn up the shaft. The inspector’s report, however, instructed that no men should travel the shaft until a period of six months had elapsed. Coal had to be drawn up the pit. No coal meant no dividends for the shareholders, and they were only now recovering from the disastrous effects of the long strike. Gradually the working of the pit was restored to normal, but many months were to go by before the daily output target was reached.
The inquests on the 2 fatalities, and the report of the Mines Inspector, were before Parliament 2 weeks after the incident. Adamson had asked for a full enquiry into the incident to prevent such a thing happening again.
Why is there no further local reporting in the Licfield Mercury after the 24th of July, concerning the second fatality, the inquest and report?