Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster – where’s the mystery?

pelshallcoldis

The Pelsall Hall Colliery, near Walsall, the Scene of the Flooding. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 23 November 1872.

I’m pleased to feature here today a fascinating research article into the infamous Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster, wonderfully written by Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler. This will be the first of two articles relating to mining accidents today – and this is a great precursor to the following one, which will ask for help with the Grove Pit Disaster.

The question of the identities of those lost in Pelsall on that fateful day in 1872 has periodically arisen in the local history community, and has once more come to the fore following a recent book release by Pelsall historian Annita Bates. Seeing this release and with his interest piqued, Peter acquired a copy of the book, and went to work.

As usual with Peter, this is a beautifully constructed piece that raises some very thought-provoking points, and also shows that journalism hasn’t changed much in one and a half centuries.

Thanks to Peter for yet another wonderful work of collaborative history, helped here in no small measure by the wonderful roving reporter in the form of the young David Evans, who took the photos for this article (there’s a complete gallery at the bottom). Thanks to both gentleman, this blog would be very much the poorer without such wonderful contributions. Cheers to you both.

I’m sure readers will have things to say: please do – either by commenting here or by mailing me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemailgot com. Cheers.

Peter Cutler wrote:

image001

Pelsall Church – St. Michael and All Angels. Image generously supplied by David Evans.

Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster 1872, an Unsolved Mystery?

Two recent articles, ‘Having no Truck with it‘ and ‘Better men than us?‘ concerning the Bloomer family and the Pelsall Ironworks have cast doubts on some facts and interpretations of Pelsall history, especially those contained in the Wikipedia article.

One question posed by the latter article is… Why has the Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster of November 1872 been linked to the Pelsall Ironworks, and Boaz Bloomer? The colliery was leased to Messrs Morgan and Starkey.

I looked into the Newspaper Archives to uncover the history of Pelsall Hall Colliery and the 1872 disaster and discovered many more interesting facts concerning the colliery and the Relief Fund.

If you make a Google search for the disaster it quickly comes up with some familiar names, including the Cannock Chase Mining History Society whose interpretation of the disaster can be seen here.

However, among the first results is a reference to an Express and Star article about a recently published book by Annita Bates: Pelsall’s Black Gold, Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster, the history, the unsolved mysteries, and the lasting legacy. (The book is available from Walsall Libraries.)

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The Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster memorial obelisk. Image generously supplied by David Evans.

I must say that the book is an excellent account of the tragedy built up from the Archives, but I was puzzled by the inclusion of ‘unsolved mysteries’ in the title, as I had not come across anything untoward in my search, except that the body of William Richards was never found.

The Conclusion of the book says:

The history of Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster presents more questions than answers, as illustrated in this book. There are many inconsistencies and many aspects which simply do not add up…. The most significant mystery of all of this is that of the missing miner. Despite numerous extensive search attempts, even up to the final closure of Pelsall Hall Colliery in 1892, the body of the missing miner was never found. The identity of the missing miner was so uncertain that in his official Mining Inspectorate, Mr Baker was only prepared to refer to him as miner 22, unknown and not found…

The first of the two lists below appears in the book and is taken from the Inspectorate of Mines Annual Report for South Staffordshire and Worcestershire, 31 December 1872, by Mr. J. Baker. The second list is from the Memorial Obelisk in the Churchyard which was reported, in January 1875, to have just been erected and unveiled without ceremony.

image023

The Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster memorial obelisk. Image generously supplied by David Evans.

There are some discrepancies between the lists but they can be matched up as shown. I have great regard for Mines Inspectors who had onerous and sometimes thankless task for poor reward. It was only in 1873 that they acquired assistants, and their number increased from 12 to 26. It can be seen that the Memorial carries the name of William Richards, and therefore first thoughts would suggest that William corresponds to No.22 on Mr. Baker’s list being ‘Unknown and not found.’

I don’t believe that it can be assumed that Mr. Baker was so uncertain of the missing miner that he was only prepared to use the term ‘unknown and not found.’ He could well of used the term unknown in the sense of unidentified.

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The Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster memorial obelisk. Image generously supplied by David Evans.

At this point there is a confusion. The Memorial inscription is for the 22 men and boys who lost their lives in the disaster and it infers that all are buried in the vault beneath, except for John Hubbard who is buried with his family at Aldridge. However, in the report of the unveiling of the Memorial in 1875 it states vault contains 20 of the victims of the disaster, as William Richard’s body had not been found and John Hubbard lay at Aldridge.

[Note that in the list given by the CCMHS link above, one of the miners is referred to as Thomas Richards (30 years old). I believe that Thomas was the second name of the William Richards named on the Memorial.]

Inspectorate —-  Memorial (Jan 1875)

1 Thomas Starkey —- Thomas Starkey
2 Thomas Coleman —- Thomas Coleman
3 Michael Cash —- Michael Cash
4 John Quarter —- John Quarters
5 George Ball/Bull —- George Bauch
6 John Hubbard —- John Hubbard
7 Thomas Hackward —- Thomas Orcutt
8 Charles Cash —- Charles Cash
9 John Hayward —- John Heyward
10 Thomas Hollis —- Thomas Hollis
11 George ?Castle —- George Cassel
12 Joseph Hollis —- Joseph Hollis
13 Charles Cape —- Charles Capewell
14 Edward Williams —- Edward Williams
15 Charles Astlebury —- Charles Astbury
16 Richard Hyde —- Richard Hyde
17 Frank Dilkes —- Frank Dilkes
18 Stephen Lawton —- Stephen Lawton
19 John Roberts —- John Roberts
20 John Starkey —- John Starkey
21 Thomas Starkey Snr —- Thoms Starkey
22 Unknown and not found —- (William Richards)

image019

The Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster memorial obelisk. Image generously supplied by David Evans.

Relief for the victims drew support from all over the country, but the owners of the colliery were not typical as they actually had family members working. This may account for the meagre contribution of financial help from the richer local owners. The rescue and search costs were born by the owners and there were times when the colliery was near to being abandoned, but they pressed on and in June of 1873 an axe and saw was found and thought to have been used by the missing man, who was engaged in removing rails at the time of the inundation, but still no body was found.

At some stage the search for the missing man would have been called off, and in January 1882 the mine was again flooded along with pits associated with the Ironworks, resulting in 700 being thrown out of employment, but with no loss of life. In March 1883 the Colliery was closed down due to an extensive fire with 220 out of work. And finally in 1890 the colliery was abandoned according to CCMHS. In June 1905 there is a:

Bankruptcy of John Starkey, of Ridding House, Pelsall, described as a former colliery proprietor, now out of business. Up to 1885 he was a manager for his father, who carried on business as a Colliery proprietor at Pelsall Hall Colliery….he and his brother took over the Colliery at a value of £6000, no money changed hands, but surrender of interests in their father’s estate….

There is a remarkable connection between the two inundations. In 1872 George Goreham had gone down to the pit bottom and helped to pull struggling men into the cage…

In 1882 a workmen who was trying to rescue the horses narrowly escaped with his life, but was succoured and rescued by a fellow workmen named George Goreham, who distinguished himself in a marked manner at the time of the former inundation, and on this occasion bravely descended one of the shafts and made his way along the working through the water, which reached up to his neck, and brought his exhausted friend up the other shaft.

The 1872 disaster touched the whole nation and contributions to the Relief Fund came from far afield, but also the Press descended on Pelsall.

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The Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster memorial obelisk. Image generously supplied by David Evans.

One of the journalists was the celebrated war correspondent Archibald Forbes and another the young up and coming David Christie Murray from West Bromwich.

Murray was later to relate:

I began my friendship with Archibald Forbes at Pelsall, and I began it in a rather curious fashion. The place was a wretched little mining village with a solitary beer shop in it, and there was only one house in which it was possible to secure decent accommodation….

They were both rented the same room by a husband and wife. When Forbes found out he threatened to throw Murray through the window. Murray replied that if he went through the window he would take Forbes with him. To that Forbes laughed at said that if he could not bully a man he would make a friend of him!

The dialect of the Black Country, when spoken at its broadest, is not easy for a stranger to understand. I, as a native of the district, was of course familiar with it, but Forbes was out of his element altogether, and might almost have tried talking chockjaw. I, knowing perfectly well that the intended attempt could not be made for at least…

….I learned at the mine head the hour at which the rescue party was to descend and I made arrangements to join it. Then I walked in to Walsall and there hired a saddle horse which I bestowed in the stables of the beer shop. This done, I made my way back to the mine and found the party just in readiness to make the descent. There were six of us, all told, and the little contingent was captained by Mr Walter Ness, who, partly as a reward for gallantry as I believe, was afterwards appointed manager of Her Majesty’s mines in Warora, Central India. We were all lowered in a skip together and the position of the air-way having been precisely ascertained one man lay face downwards on the skip’s bottom and broke through the brickwork with a pick. The sullen waters of the pool were only some eight or ten feet beneath us…

….I was holding a candle to the dead man’s face and we were all gathered round when the light went out suddenly as if it had been quenched in water. In a second we were in pitch darkness and our leader called out ‘Choke damp, back for your lives,’ and in the pitchy darkness back we struggled…

…And then I made all haste to the beer shop where I mounted my horse and rode full tilt into Birmingham. The paper had gone to press early that night and the press was already clanking when I rode into Pinfold Street and sat down, all muddy and dishevelled as I was, to dictate my copy to a shorthand writer.

I had to say filled two large type columns and with the copy of the paper in my pocket, I rode back to Pelsall. There I found Forbes at breakfast he asked where I had been and I produced the paper and showed my work in silence….

The Press, even back in 1872, were prone to sensationalise some stories. I doesn’t surprise me that the report from the Birmingham Daily Post on November 26 adds at the end…

…The missing body of Richards, if it be Richards, for the clothes taken from one of the corpses have been claimed as his, has not yet been found.

As the body of the missing miner was never found then there must be some degree of uncertainty, but I would say it was a small degree. William Richards RIP.

Images from the churchyard of St. Michael and All Angels, Pelsall, kindly supplied by David Evans.

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10 Responses to Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster – where’s the mystery?

  1. Dave Williams says:

    Lovely pictures I know this church very well I attend quite regular thanks for the story

  2. Edwina. says:

    This is something that has piqued my interest as my Great Grandfather was a nail maker from Pelsall and that’s all the info I have managed to glean, so I assumed he either worked in the pits or for the railway. But you lads are fascinating when you get your heads together, fabulous bit of work, yet again.

  3. John Anslow says:

    “a wretched little mining village with a solitary beer shop in it … “

    The 1871 census for Pelsall lists The Swan Inn, The Forge Inn, The Free Trade Inn, The Royal Oak, The Queens Hotel, The Station Inn, The Railway Tavern and The Kings Arms; as well as two beer sellers and a publican. Perhaps the journalist thought that Pelsall didn’t extend beyond Old Town.

    Wasn’t the Station Inn used as a mortuary and then for the inquest, following the disaster?

    In the third of David’s photographs, to the right of the memorial obelisk, is a house partly hidden behind some trees. This is The Sycamores where Benjamin Bloomer (one of Old Boaz’s sons, I assume) and his family were living in 1871.

    At that time, Old Boaz lived at Ridding House and another son, Young Boaz, at The Grove.

    • Pedro says:

      The quote from David Christie Murray actually comes from his book entitled “The Making of a Novelist” and was featured in an article written for the Black Country magazine (V10/4), way back in the early years. He also admits to writing an unspeakably bad novel that had the disaster as the central incident, and it was published from Saturday to Sunday in the Morning News. Many readers wrote to the paper to vilify the editor and the author.

      In the same book he writes…

      I have the kindliest memories of some of the old heroes. The very first man who helped me on with a pair of boxing-gloves was the mighty ‘Slasher’—the Tipton Slasher, William Perry, who in the days of my nonage kept the Champion of England public-house in my native parish of West Bromwich, in South Staffordshire. He it was who trained my youthful hands to guard my youthful head; and I have a foolish stupid pride and pleasure in the memory of that fact The Worcester and Birmingham Canal divides the parishes of Smethwick and West Bromwich, and the Slasher’s house was the last on the right-hand side—a shabby, seedy place enough, smoke-encrusted on the outside and mean within, but a temple of splendour all the same to the young imagination. The Champion of England dwelt there—the unconquered, the undisputed chieftain of the fighting clan. He reigned there for years, none daring to make him afraid.

      I have been soundly flogged time and time again for visiting him. I have been put on bread and water and held in solitary confinement for the same misdemeanour, but the man had a glamour for me and drew me with the attraction of a magnet. I can see him now, almost as plainly as if he stood before me. He was a Hercules of a man, with enormous shoulders, and his rough honest mid-England features had a sort of surly welcome in their look. But for an odd deformity he would have had the stature of a giant; but he was hideously knock-kneed, and his shamble when he walked was awkward to the limits of the grotesque. You have only to invert the letter V to have an image of the Slasher’s legs from foot to knee. His feet were strangers to each other; but his knees were inseparable friends, and hugged each other in a perpetual intimacy. In fighting he used to await his man, propped up in this inverted V fashion, and somehow he gained so solid a footing in that strange and clumsy attitude that he never, in all his experience of the Ring, received a knock-down blow until he encountered Tom Sayers in that last melancholy fight which cost him the championship, and the snug little property in the Champion of England public-house, and his friends and his reputation, and all he had in the world

  4. Andy Dennis says:

    Yet again, Pedro, great work!

  5. First class as ever Bob, a great article. Well done.

  6. peter burns says:

    Where was the actual mine situated.

    • Pedro says:

      I believe that the pit was known locally as Mouse Hill Pit. In her book Annita Bates says the colliery closed in 1892, and the area acquired by a Doctor Gilchrist. The area was landscaped but the house that had been built there and grounds were abandoned in 2005. In 2009 the building was demolished after a serious fire.

      She also says that in the 60s one of the shafts was backfilled being found in Allens Lane

  7. Pedro says:

    There are discrepancies between the list of the CCMHS, which seems to take its information from the Monument, and the list of the Mines Inspectorate. The main one being that the Monument records George Baugh (39) and I believe this corresponds to George Ball/Bull stated by the Mine Inspector.

    I was puzzled by the reports of January 1875 when the Memorial was erected much later than expected without any ceremony; the disaster had gripped the nation.

    Since the time of the article the Brierley Hill newspaper for 1875 has appeared on the Archives…

    “The unveiling of the memorial stone erected in commemoration of the terrible accident at Pelsall Hall Colliery on 14 December 1872, which was fully expected to have taken place on the anniversary, but for some cause or other the ceremony has been postponed from time to time, and ultimately one morning recently a workman arrived from Birmingham, and unceremoniously unveiled the stone…

    ….It is now certain there will be no formality in connection with the unveiling and this sad memorial of one of the most dreadful accidents that has ever happened in this locality; but who is accountable for the unexpected turn affairs have taken in connection with this matter we know not; but the omission or oversight, or whatever it may be called, has given anything but satisfaction in the locality.”

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