90 years ago today: The Grove Pit Disaster

Ninety years ago today, the 1st October 1930, an underground blast killed 14 men working in a coal mine, The Grove Colliery, underneath Brownhills Common. Ten of those lost souls are buried in the Churchyard of St James, Brownhills, in a communal memorial.

Sadly, the memorial is in not such a great state lately.

If you do nothing else today, I’d like you to think of those lost lads, their families and the price they paid.

The miners who gave their lives were:

Alfred Boden aged 49
John Brownridge 34
Ben Corbett 52
John Hackett 33
Alfred Heath 27
Jack Holland 41
Richard Howdle 30
Alex Martin 32
James Malley 33
William Robbins 45
John Scoffam 50
Harry Smith 38
John Whittaker 44
William Whittaker 62

I wrote the following article exactly a decade ago to the hour. I can’t better it, so slightly modified, please remember the debt we owe to those men, below.

A turn of the century photo of a distressed shaft at Walsall Wood Colliery. Image taken from ‘Coal Mining in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and Aldridge’ by Brian Rollins.

Ninety years ago today, on the 1st October, 1930, fourteen men died underground, as a result of a gas explosion at the Grove, or Brownhills Colliery. It is thought that the men perished when a naked light was struck in the shaft. I have featured this incident as a recurring theme over the years, and much has been written by others about the dreadful events of that autumn dawn, pictured in newsreel footage posted on this blog previously. The excellent site ‘Brownhills Past’, has the following to say on the subject:

<The Grove Colliery was the> Site of the worst mining disaster in Brownhills history. An explosion of gas killed fourteen men on the nightshift on 1st of October 1930. The explosion occured in the shallow coal district, 1.5 miles from the shaft bottom. There was a public inquiry into the accident which returned an open verdict as there was “Not sufficient evidence to prove how the explosion occured”. However it was found that five of the dead men were carrying contraband materials e.g matches and cigarettes, and as electricity and safety lamps were ruled out it was stated that somebody may have struck a light. The Grove was not known as a paticularly “gassy” pit and in most parts open lights were allowed. It was also stated that 11 of the men died from carbon monoxide poisoning, and 3 from injuries caused by the blast, 12 of the men may have lived for a while after the explosion.

The pit was opened in 1857 by William Harrison, who also sunk the Cathedral and Wyrley common pits.The pit closed in 1952.

A full report on the accident and subsequent enquiry, sourced from the Coal Mining History Resource Centre can be read here (.PDF).

This dreadful loss of life was a terrible blow to the town, and there are several photos of the funeral procession through Brownhills, featured on Chasewaterstuff’s blog. The wonderfully comprehensive history of St. James Church speaks of the mourning:

At 9:18 pm on 1st October 1930 a terrible explosion occurred in the Grove (Brownhills) Colliery beneath the “Fleur De Lys” public house. The funerals of ten of the miners who lost their lives in the disaster took place at St. James Church on 7th October. A solemn procession starting from the Council House made its way along the High Street into Church Road, (lined both sides by the whole of the Ogley Hay and Brownhills community), to the Church where Vicar W.E. Wibby held the funeral service. The miners were laid to rest in a mass grave divided into ten sections in Great Charles Street Graveyard with full military honours as six of the men had fought in the Great War.

These were dark events, but they were by no means unique; there were huge numbers of men and boys killed or maimed in the course of coal and mineral extraction throughout the victorian era, right through to the second world war. Conditions for these hard, determined people gradually improved – but it was not until the social and political upheavals in the early decades of the 20th century that major strides were made in either welfare, healthcare or health and safety. We have the campaigners, socialists and strikers of the period to thank for the legacy they left us, that nearly a century later, not one of us has to accept injury or death at work to be an occupational hazard.

The miners who died at the Grove pit were not unique. Many will speak reverently of their bravery, of their resilience, of their stoicism. But these were not special men, they were just ordinary working blokes, earning their living in a filthy, harsh and deadly industry. An essential industry that warmed homes, powered trains and ships and melted metal, but one which was riddled with shortcuts, dangerous practices, crooked mine owners and employee abuse. That those who died were somehow more than those who did not is an oft-repeated myth; men found work where they could, and the pits represented a relatively good living, more often than not followed by a living death from industrial respiratory diseases. Time and societal advances artificially separate us from them, yet had we been born of the period dominated by Old King Coal as they were, we’d be down the pits, too. The line we draw is thinner than ever we’d think.

Reflect on the victory that those communities fought for – an honest, safe day’s work for a living wage; democratic representation; full recourse after the unthinkable should happen. Today we relax with every modern comfort imaginable precisely because millions of workers like those lost deep under Wyrley Common fought for a better world. We must never ever forget what we are the beneficiaries of, nor the privations and hardships suffered in order that we might enjoy a brighter day.

As civic leaders and nostalgic historians erect pointless and irrelevant statuary to lost generations of the workers who fuelled both the industrial and social revolutions, politicians are hastily dismantling the institutions that those generations died in the creation of. Members of the government speak of the need to streamline the NHS, to end the perceived tyranny of the Health and Safety Executive. Our own Prime Minister talks darkly of the Welfare State. It is almost as if an opportunity has been seized.

If we let them destroy this priceless legacy, then we insult those men who today, we remember. The men below, the men of the foundry, factory floor and mill, didn’t suffer what they did to see this destroyed. We must be vigilant. Once the social state is lost, it won’t ever be put back.

Today I will raise a glass to fourteen lost men. Rest in peace, chaps. You may be gone, but you’re not forgotten.

The Grove Pit as surveyed around the mid 1920’s. It stood on Lime Lane, just where the landfill is today. Click on the image for a larger version.

The Men Below

Steve Skaith / Mike Jones

Album, tour, albumen – you’re still picking at the shell
And you know you should be glad of the living
But it seems like a living hell sometimes
And on this playing stage you play so hard
But so much harder still – is the life beneath, down deep in the seams
Where your hotel nights are the stuff of the dreams
Of the men below

Imagine, having to fight
To work two miles down from the air and the light
And imagine, having to plead
That a job that can kill, is a job that you need

Darker blue this darkness, than a pale young miner’s eyes
Who has to see the convoy lights come shining
And can’t close off his surprise
With his one poor piece of paving, pressing hard against his palm
Knowing it might be the only way he’d ever get to spend another day
With the men below

And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust – to the men below?

And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust – to the men below?

And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust – to the men below?

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4 Responses to 90 years ago today: The Grove Pit Disaster

  1. Andy Roper says:

    A fantastic piece of work commemorating those who died and the harsh conditions they work in
    It’s only right that these occasions are remembered and not forgotten.
    Nice one Bob

  2. Christine Simpson says:

    Bob i emailed you last week stating that my Grandad Alec Martin and my great grandad William Whittaker died in this disaster. You have made my day with such a lovely tribute and brought a tear to my eye with your contribution. I will also be raising a glass in honour of not only my lost ones but of all the men who died at the Grove
    Christine Simpson
    Hamble nr Southampton

  3. Isobel Dams says:

    Thank you for a very moving piece. Strangely, I had been thinking just before I read this about my uncle, Robin White, who died almost exactly a year later in October 1931, at the age of 15, in a pit accident somewhere in the vicinity of Brownhills. I have not been able to find out anything about his death and I don’t even know which pit he worked in or where he was buried.

  4. F.B.Lycett says:

    RIP those men, before my time, but I did a lot of hauling from the Grove in the 50’s and 60’s, my grandfather was with Mines Rescue at Holly Bank colliery

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