Was the investigation into the Grove Pit Disaster a whitewash?

Simon Swain’s remarkable images of what remains today of the Grove Colliery, featured in this article.

Much has been written here about this dreadful accident in the Harrison pit – my searches for John Bernard Whittaker’s grave, finding footage of the rescue on Pathe News archives. I’ve ruminated on the dreadful events of that October day, and how they were overshadowed by more newsworthy events. I, and contributors to this blog, have found the accident report online, and considered and investigated the nature of the Harrison operation and family.

In April this year, I featured an article about Richard Persehouse’s quest into the disaster and his Grandfather’s involvement in it, which he is convinced has been subject to a whitewash. At the end of July, his story was featured in the Sunday Mercury in a long article by noted local journalist Mike Lockley, detailing Richard’s investigations.

Richard was kind enough to send me scans, but I’ve not had time to sort the text out until now, and with the nights drawing in, I think this is a good time to share this with readers – I know a few will want to comment on this.

Thanks to Richard, sorry for the delay in publishing this – but I do welcome views and contributions. You can click on either of the images for larger versions, or see the transcribed article beneath.

Comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.


Part 1 – From the Sunday Mercury, July 31st 2016. Click for a larger version.


Part 2 – From the Sunday Mercury, July 31st 2016. Click for a larger version.

The article reads:

Injustice heaped on the victims of pit tragedy

A historian is fighting for justice for 14 miners killed in one of the Midlands’ worst pit disasters. Richard Pursehouse hopes his investigation into the Grove Colliery disaster on October 1, 1940 [Actually 1930 – Bob], will also clear his great-grandfa-ther John Pattison, manager at the Brownhills pit, of any blame.

The official line was that the explosion was caused by workers snubbing safety rules and lighting cigarettes.

No-nonsense Pattison, tasked with searching miners before their shift started for contraband such as cigarettes and tobacco, was so appalled by the conclusion that he stormed out ofthe public inquiry.

He always claimed that spontaneous combustion, sparked by insufficient ventilation in the shafts, caused the deadly blast.

He always maintained he searched every employee for contraband and routinely confiscated cigarettes. Down below, only twists of ‘baccy were allowed.

Great-grandson Richard believes his research backs claims of a whitewash.

Tellingly, he has found that, on October 24, 1930 – some three weeks after the deaths – shaft ven-tilation measured 3,480 cubic feet per minute.

To those without a science degree, that will mean little. But compare the measurement, recorded during management tests, with those taken in February, 1930, at Waith Main Colliery, YorksWre, following a similar explosion.

The readings revealed ventilation at 7,400 cubic feet per minute – more than double the Grove air flow.

Yet calls by The Miners’ Federation to prosecute Grove senior management for safety breaches were rejected .

One thing beyond doubt is the scale of the Grove tragedy.

It was the second-worst disaster to hit the mass of pits that made up the Cannock Chase Coalfield, eclipsed only by the Pelsall Hall Colliery horror of November 1872, which claimed 22 lives.

At 9.l8pm on October 1st, 1940 [1930! – Bob], a huge explosion took place on  and a half miles below ground.

The incident so shocked local folk that landowner, the Earl of Darttnouth, was moved to write: ‘There are some things upon which no difference of opinion is possible.

‘One is the daily peril that is faced by those who work in the pits, and the other is, when trouble comes and an accident happens, the splendid self-sacrificing courage our Cannock Chase miners have shown.’

Tough John Pattison was in the thick of it, dragging mutilated bodies co the surface.

Victims had descended to work on a ‘shallow seam’ 150 yards wide and 900 yards long. They were aware there had been a small explosion only a week before and wore electric safety lamps.

‘Here’s where I found the first irregularity’ says Richard. ‘My mother commented that her grandfather, John, always maintained the men going down in the cages were searched for contraband – cigarettes, tobacco – in compliance with the Coal Mines Act of 1911.

‘They were always searched more thoroughly than the compulsory ten per cent stipulated in the Act.

‘Miners found with cigarettes bad been dismissed by John Pattison.

‘His fearsome reputation as a stickler for the rules was well-known.’

Despite Pattison’s vigilance, the inquiry revealed that six of the men killed carried contraband, and four of the six were working the new face when the explosion happened.

Such a comment was a slur on Pattison, and his anger understandable. He was haunted by a sense of injustice.

Night fireman Abraham Joseph Dodd was first to come across the carnage. He descended to discover ‘a Jumble of tubs, displaced roof supports and heavy fall of stone.’

He shouted, but there was no response, and was soon joined by a fresh set of shift workers led by overman George Stanton.

As Stanton advanced gingerly, he recalled that the shaft was ‘foul with the smell of burning.’

One man was sent to inform pit manager Pattison.

Stanton, Dodd and the rest of the men were unable to advance further because of ‘firedamp’ – a deadly, odourless cocktail of chemicals, including methane, that collects in the coal seams, and can trigger a blast.

There was also a further fall of rocks to contend with.

When Pattison arrived, he and Stanton climbed on top of the debris blocldng the shaft and shouted, but again received no response.

The sirens were set off, and the Hednesford Rescue Station team called.

Pattison didn’t wait for their arrival. He threw off bis jacket and began pulling out bodies, five in all, found by approaching the area from another shaft.

The night was a long, harrowing one. Above ground a crowd of 6,000 miners and relatives had gathered, some fearing the worst, others wanting to assist in any way they could.

Pattison remained underground until all bodies had been removed. He then inspected the victims as they lay in oak coffins at the carpenter’s workshop.

Pattison maintained that no cigarettes or matches were found on the bodies, only ‘twists’ of black chewing tobacco.

A broken watch on one of the men had stopped at 9.18.

Yet the Coroner’s Officer later claimed he searched the bodies at the surface and found ‘contraband articles’.

Armed with that information, the coroner stated the accident was probably caused by ‘an ignition by a naked light produced by human agency’.

But members ofthe jury at the inquest, held at Brownhills’ Memorial Hall, were unconvinced, concluding that there was ‘no sufficient conclusive evidence to prove how the explosion occurred’.

The official inquiry into the explosion convened at the Co- operative Hall, Walsall, at the end of the month and lasted three days.

It was agreed that ‘coal dust played little part in the disaster’ and Sir Henry Walker, chief inspector of mines, ‘considered all possible sources – electrical, shot firing (an explosion to dislodge coal), spontaneous combustion, sparks from falling stones and an exposed flame from a safety lamp’.

John Pattison’s testimony that spontaneous combustion was the probable cause was, to his anger, dismissed. Spontaneous combustion occurs when coal reacts with oxygen in the air, liberating heat and, if left unchecked, fire.

He publicly stated that the through-flow of air was insufficient and the mine’s owners bad not acted on his recommendation for additional ventilation because of cost issues.

The blast, Pattison believed, had been caused by a mix of firedamp, moist air and poor ventilation.

But the inquiry ruled that a flame from a match had ‘ignited a considerable accumulation of firedamp’.

The impact of the explosion on the families of those who died, and those who were involved in the rescue, would continue for decades.

Pattison continued in bis job at The Grove after the inquiry published its findings, but to his dying day, Pattison claimed a cover-up had taken place.

Now great-grandson Richard is bell-bent on proving it.

Image kindly supplied by Simon Swain
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5 Responses to Was the investigation into the Grove Pit Disaster a whitewash?

  1. Pedro says:

    On first reading there are a few things in the newspaper report that do not tie in with the inquest. For example the first that comes to my mind without looking back in detail is that..

    The paper says that “six of the men killed carried contraband, and four were working at the site of the explosion.”

    In the comments section of the article, The Grove Disaster; the Human cost, at the end my final comment…

    “John Pattison was convinced that regular searches of the miners took place, and yet contraband was found in the clothing of all but two of the fourteen dead men. This seems to be an extraordinarily large percentage! But the search had taken place by Police Sergeant Cresswell without any of the relatives present, and maybe not anyone else present?”

    Now the Inquest says contraband was found on 12 out of 14 dead. This was found by a Police Sergeant Cresswell on examination. I could not find any evidence that any other person was present at this search, or that any of the dead men’s relatives were present. I would think this is the first question to be answered.

    In recent times we have the examples of Hillsborough and Orgreave, as well as questions of the West Midland Police Force. I believe it is right to question

    • Pedro says:

      At the Inquiry Sergeant Cresswell gave extensive information concerning the contraband found on each man.

      AJ Cook of the Miner’s Federation suggested that the relatives of men should have been present when the search was made, but Cresswell said that he did not think it was needed.

      The CCMHS, who try to write a definitive history of the Cannock Chase Coalfields, give a short account of the accident, but they say that the Coroner’s Officer searched the clothing when the bodies reached the surface.

      So was Cresswell alone? He clearly states that HE did not think the relatives needed to be present. Why was a policeman employed to undertake a task that presumably would be done by the Coroner?

  2. Steve Challinor says:

    I visited the memorial this week (Jan 2020). Sadly it looks run down. My grandmother Emma Jane lost both her husband Alec Martin and her father William Whittaker on that October day in 1930. In the 1950’s and 1960’s she still spoke of her husband and father, the disaster, and the injustice of the inquiries’ blaming the men for the ignition of the explosion. Her mother Lucy had passed away in August 1930 and is interred with her father William at the memorial (RH end).
    Steve Challinor Fort Worth Texas.

    • Christine Simpson says:

      I visited Dec 2019 and placed silk flowers on the memorial of Alec Martin and William Whittaker, the former my grandfather and the latter my great grand father. My mum Iris was Emma and Alec’s daughter who also spoke about the injustice and by looking at this blog have found that mum made a contribution to the Norton Canes Historical Society Journal 1975. I was surprised on how run down it has become as others in the cemetery which is classed as a commonwealth had been kept well, maybe when life is back to normal someone will think to tidy up the memorial. When mum died in 2012 I found photographs and funeral cards relating to the funeral service. This year is the 90th Anniversary and 10yrs ago a memorial service took place, I did wonder if anything was going to take place to remember the anniversary but now in the current situation does not seem as relevant as it could have been, so I will be lighting a candle on the 1st October to remember this tragic disaster. Nice to see a blog from a family member

      Christine Simpson Hamble Southampton

  3. Pedro says:

    It is sad to hear that the memorial looks run down. Is the local interest in the mining heritage slipping away?

    The Cannock Chase Mining Historical Society’s internet site seems have died a death.

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