I must say there hasn’t been enough local history stuff here of late and it has also been too long since I last featured a research article by the incisive and tenacious historian Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler.
Today I’m rectifying that with a look at the Old Hednesford Colliery Disaster, a dreadful incident brought to light when Reg ‘Are Reg’ Fullelove donated a poem he’d come to have in his collection to the blog.
Peter was interested in the story of Thomas Stokes told in the poem, and has applied his skills to uncovering Thomas’s role in the events, and ponders on how, yet again, modern accounts of the accident differ from what appears to be the actuality.
Always question accounts of historical events however worthy the source; motives and confirmation bias creep in all the time – as we’ve shown before.
My thanks, as ever to Peter; this is one of a number of articles I’ve had for a while and I intend to work on the backlog now other pressures have eased off. Thanks, as ever, to Peter and all contributors for their work and patience.
Thomas Stokes, The Old Hednesford Pit Disaster, 14 December 1911.
Towards the end of March the Blog featured ‘Mining the information’; kindly donated by Aer Reg, part of which included the sad poem below about the ‘The Old Hednesford Pit Disaster. December 14th, 1911.’
At the present time no one has identified the lady who wrote the poem. So just what happened on that sad day, and what role did Thomas Stokes play that made his special mention at the end of the poem?
The 100th aniversary of the disaster was reported by the Express and Star…
Hundreds of football fans paid tribute to five miners who died in a pit tragedy a century ago [Hednesford Town]…The Northern Premier League football ground is on part of the former colliery site.
William Edgar Bradbury, Jacob Ward, Thomas Stokes, William Baugh and William Stacey Reeves were remembered during a minute’s solemn reflection.
Descendants of Jacob Ward and Thomas Stokes were at Saturday’s premier division home match against Mickleover Sports.
Peter Barker, who is the vice-chairman of the Cannock Chase Mining Historical Society that organised the club’s minute’s silence, said: “As this was the 100th anniversary of the tragedy the football club felt it would be very appropriate if we had a minute’s silence.”
The publication, Cannock Chase Coalfield by the CCMHS gives a limited description of the disaster but only mentions one man, being Henry Merritt who went to try to lead others to safety. There is no reference to Thomas Stokes.
A much more detailed description can be seen from the site of the Coal Mining History Resource Centre, which shows the role that Thomas played. But even in this description there are facts of the disaster that need to be added:
…Henry Merritt, an examiner who had been shot firing in the No.1 stall when the alarm reached him, made his escape to the shaft bottom by way of the return air way. He was then asked by the overman to go into the Nos. 2 and 3 and fetch the men out. He immediately consented.
Tom Stokes, a Stallman who had come out of the No. 109 stall volunteered to go with him. They went through the separation doors and up an incline, to No.2 stall, a distance of over 800 yards an told the men to come out at once. Up to this time the air in the return airway carried some smoke and the products of combustion but was breathable…
…When Merritt, Stokes and the four men who they had gone to fetch from No.2, they found large quantities of smoke was leaking through the double doors which separated the intake from the return and that the air way o the return side was badly fouled.
Some of the men were reluctant to enter it but Merritt told them it was the only way out and led the way, closely followed by a miner named Payne who held on to Merritt’s waistcoat. Bradbury followed, but the others appeared to have remained where they were and died from the smoke and poisonous fumes from the fire.
On reaching a point where the air was comparatively clear, Merritt sent Payne outbye and returned through the double doors and shouted to find out if the others were following. Bradbury had reached a point where he had succumbed to the smoke so Merritt got no reply and, finding that it was impossible to proceed along the return, he went towards the upcast shaft and met some other men who had come form sections of the workings which had been less affected. He sent these men to the surface and then, retaining the cage at the bottom of the upcast shaft he went to the doors accompanied by some other men but when he opened the doors, the smoke was so dense that they could not go forward. he went up the shaft and arrived at the surface in a very exhausted state.
Of course there maybe things that I have missed, but I find it sad that there seems to have been little recognition of Thomas who volunteered to help his workmates. Along with Henry Merritt he received the Edward Medal.
If you look at details from the Inquest there are matters that have not been mentioned in the modern accounts. The Mines Inspector was a Mr Johnson, and it was also attended by Mr Albert Stanley MP. They both commended the bravery of Hewitt.
The CCMHS and CMHRC tell us that the overman, Jesse Collier, opened the separating doors but unfortunately failed to stop the ventilating fan. To my mind this implies some criticism. Professor Cadman, however, said that there was only one thing to be done in the case of fire, and that was to stop the fan and open the separation doors. That was a point that must be tackled at once, it was useless to do it after any lapse of time, as the smoke would have gone right through the works. He added that the greatest praise should go to Jesse for opening the separation doors; it was absolutely the right thing to do, and had it not been done the men who afterwards came out would have lost their lives. This was endorsed by the Coroner.
The boys that filled the lamps were at least as young as 14, and were allowed to throw the wicks on the floor
A witness said the Fire Brigade did a good job the second time they went down, but the first time there were only three of them left at the pit bottom.
In his summing up the Coroner….
… It was very easy to sit in an arm-chair and say that one should have done this or that; it was always easy to be wise after the event, but when accidents occurred the whole question was how to get the men out of the pit, and no doubt the best was done so far as those responsible knew how to do it at the time. The utmost bravery was shown by all concerned, and the evidence given that day spoke volumes for the men who took part. Where all worked so well it would perhaps be invidious to especially mention any, but if any man deserved the name of hero, then the man was Thomas Stokes (hear, hear) and he hoped the King Edward medal, which he would almost certainly have obtained would he given to his widow; if anything he could do, or Mr. Johnstone could do to further that it would be done, (Hear, hear) Equally deserving praise was the man Henry Merritt, who was fortunate in getting back to safety with his life, where Stokes was unfortunate.
A word of praise was also due to Jesse Collyer for his presence of mind in opening the separation doors; also to the members of the fire brigade and the rescue party headed by Professor Cadman, who worked untiringly and unceasingly in the endeavour to get to me deceased men…
The jury returned a verdict of death through asphyxiation, and added a recommendation to the effect that a man should be placed in entire charge of the shukey house; and that a quantity of sand should be kept always at kept at hand in case of emergency hand ready for any case of emergency.
To all who read these few lines
I’ve a sorrowful tale to unfold
Of the Hednesford Pit disaster
Which brought grief to young and old
On that fateful Thursday morning
They entered the cage for the mine,
Not shirking from doing their duty,
Leaving their families behind.
They were toiling and working as usual
When a cry of “Fire” was heard.
It was a sign of very great danger
And all on duty were stirred.
To rescue the miners in safety,
Was the leading thought that inspired
The bravest and truest of workmen
To use the courage we all have admired.
Through smoke and fire they travelled
Risking all to them so dear
To try and save their comrades
Whilst knowing death was near.
We’ve read of deeds of bravery
Of heroes of former time,
Among them should be mentioned
The heroes of the Hednesford mine.
But who were the greatest heroes
I’m sure its hard to tell,
For all did their honest duty
And did it faithfully and well.
With all their bravery and courage
And schemes they could devise
It has to be recorded
Death claimed its victims – five.
Stokes, Ward, Reeves, Baugh and Bradbury
Are the name we have to relate
Who lost their lives at duty
Not knowing that death was their fate.
Of Stokes let it be recorded
That others he went to tell
Of the danger that threatened their lives
When he was overcome and fell.
[Note: This poem was written by a lady who lived in a house at the rear of Littleworth Post Office ( Wassel’s shop ). I believe her name was either Baggott or Bagley. W D Nicholls.]