The Old Hednesford Pit Disaster: a question of Merrit

Incisive and tenacious historian Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler has been quietly continuing his investigations into the Old Hednesford Colliery Disaster, the 1911 accident that was brought to our attention when Reg ‘Aer Reg’ Fullelove donated a poem he’d come to have in his collection to the blog.

Peter recently continued is exploration with a long and detailed article regarding the huge and brave part played by Thomas Stokes – and further research seems to indicate some nastiness in the local press of the day, which is shocking but unsurprising.

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 and all the other wonderful contributors for their work and patience.

Peter wrote:

old_hednesford_colliery_disaster

The Old Hednesford Colliery Disaster – from the wonderful HeathHaesHistory.co.uk

Hi Bob,

Firstly thanks for publishing the article concerning Thomas Stokes and the Old Hednesford Pit disaster of 1911. The reason for the article was the disappointment at the lack of recognition for Thomas Stokes by the modern historians of the Cannock Chase Coalfields. However, in the Comments, Andy Dennis has added some press references that led me to look more closely at the local coverage and I have unearthed more interesting facts of the aftermath, not least the age-old nastiness of the Press.

Andy Dennis is right that the story of the two medals for Thomas Stokes and Henry Merritt, being the Edward medal and the Carniegie certificate, were big news. Their names appeared in many newspapers from Dundee to Portsmouth. The Edward Medal is now considered one of the rarest British Gallantry awards, and only 77 first class were awarded. The medal was discontinued in 1971 when the surviving holders were given the option to exchange for the George Cross.

The recommendations for the Edward Medal came from the Coroner, the Mines Inspector, Professor Cadman and the MP Mr A Stanley, and it was around the end of April of 1912 that confirmation was received. Mrs Stokes preferred a private ceremony and this was held at the residence of the MP Mr A Stanley and attended by the Earl and Countess of Dartmouth, who were ‘visibly affected and their sympathy for the widow was apparent.’ In July Henry Merrit, accompanied by Mr Beacon of the Colliery, would travel to Buckingham Palace to receive the award personally from the King.

The Colliery Company had presented Merritt and Stokes with testimonials, engraved and framed in gilt, along with two purses of 10 guineas.

Henry Merrit and Thomas Stokes were both brought to the attention of the Carniegie Fund by the Deputy Coroner and received the Carnegie Certificate in June of 1912. Merrit was presented with a cheque for £25 and Mrs Stokes received an allowance of 10s per week, subject to conditions. At the presentation Johnathon Hunter spoke on behalf of the Coalowners of Cannock Chase, saying that they ‘were always desirous to do everything they could for the safety of their workmen….’ but it seems the Carnegie Fund were more generous.

The Lichfield Mercury re-reported an article that had featured in the South Staffs Times after a visit to interview Merrit about his visit to Buckingham Palace.

After asking reasonable questions of the visit the interviewer asked Henry Merrit his opinion of the agitation which was existent amongst miners at the fact that Archie Harley, ‘who is said to have saved 9 men on the occasion of the disaster,’ had received no public recognition.

Henry expressed regret at any unpleasantness, but would say nothing further about the incident. ‘I was in another district, and know nothing of what occurred except where I was. I never said anything to anybody about getting a medal. I never said a word about the affair at all. It was simply Mr Johnson, the Coroner and Mr Saint that said I was justified the awarding of the medal. I could not have stayed in the workings many seconds longer, the smoke was so dense.’

Shame on the South Staffs Times, and shame on the Lichfield Mercury for reproducing without any opinion.

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7 Responses to The Old Hednesford Pit Disaster: a question of Merrit

  1. Andy Dennis says:

    Good work Pedro. And thanks for the mention.

    Mr Harley’s role would have been considered at the Inquest? The report on CMHRC does not mention him.

  2. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a big thankyou to Pedro for his investigation and thoroughness…in this and in all his contributions
    kind regards
    David

  3. Chris says:

    I cannot see that there is any press nastiness going on. They are not phrasing the question as an attack on Henry Merritt, they’re offering him a platform to respond to rumours, which they and Merritt are obviously aware of, and which therefore all readers of the story are aware of but which if printed as fact or opinion might have been libellous. And Merritt takes the opportunity to publicly deny what is being said behind his back or possibly to his face – presumably that he has claimed credit which is not his, could have done more, and has been rewarded with a substantial sum of money for self publicity. It seems to me that the nastiness in this story is entirely the bitter jealousy of Archie Harley and his friends.

  4. Pedro says:

    Very interesting opinion. Is it based just on the article above or on further investigation?

  5. Andy Dennis says:

    Re-reading the Walsall Advertiser article of 6 Jan 1912 does not give me any sense that Harley added anything significant to the rescue efforts of Stokes and Merritt. Indeed, his first suggested escape route was impassable.

  6. aerreg says:

    years ago i was loaned a newspaper cutting by an elderly couple daily mirror i think it refered to a youngh hero who lead to safety a number of pit ponies at the disaster at hednesford the story carried a photograph he was a boy scout i thinkhe recieved an award sadly it was tresured so mutch by the couple i was unable to copy it who knows some one out there may know of him and others on that tragic day god bless

  7. Pingback: Littleton Colliery 1912, another Battle of Orgreave? | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

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