Pretoria Pit Mine Disaster

 

December 21, 1910 - Onlookers wait anxiously as smoke bellows from the Hulton Colliery from the No. 3  Shaft - Bolton Evening News

During the Christmas week of 1910, the task of most families in the Westhoughton and Atherton area was to prepare for the upcoming holidays.  However, the local coal mining families were completely unaware that in a brief instant their lives were about to be tragically, and irrevocably changed.

The Pretoria Pit Disaster is the worst coal mining accident to have occurred in Lancashire, and the third worst mining disaster in British history.  The Pretoria Pit was a complex of coal mines owned by the Hulton Colliery Company, and situated on the boarder of Westhoughton and Atherton.  Pretoria Pit was the largest coal mine in the Westhoughton area, working five coal seams in the region.  Each seam had its own mine: Trencherbone, Plodder, Yard, Three-Quarter, and Arley mine.

The Hulton Colliery Co. employed approximately 2,500 people locally.  On the morning of December 21, 1910, a total of 898 men and boys clocked in for the day shift at the Hulton Colliery, and most had descended the shafts below ground before 8 AM.  One of those arriving for work early that morning was a 16 year old boy, Joseph Shearer Staveley of Westhoughton, on his very first day of employment in the Yard mine workshops.  A total of 347 men, including Joseph,  had descended down the No. 3 pit shaft to work in the Yard mine that morning, when suddenly, at 7:50 AM there was a tremendous underground explosion, about 300 yards deep below the earth's surface, at the level of the Yard mine.

Mr Alfred Tonge was the General Manager of Hulton Colliery at the time, and he lived almost two miles away from the pit head.  He was home at the time of the blast, and heard the explosion.  He immediately left his home and arrived at the mine within about twenty minutes, leading a team of rescuers into the mine.  He wrote an account of what he found on upon his arrival, which was turned in to the enquiry as evidence during the investigation:

“I was in my house and heard the report about ten minutes to eight and was informed shortly after that there had been an explosion. When I got to the pit, I found smoke coming from the upcast shaft. I saw that a portion of the casing of the upcast shaft had been wrecked. I went forward to the downcast shaft and was informed by the mechanical engineer that one of the cages was fast in the shaft as a result of the explosion. There was no damage to the engine and as the No. 3 shaft was out of the purpose for travelling purposes, we set to work to liberate the cage in the downcast. Fortunately one of the cages appeared to be free, but it could not be brought up because the other cage was fast. We had to disconnect the rope from the cage that was fast from the drum and after that the free cage was brought to the surface. I got to the pit about ten minutes past eight and the cage was free about nine o’clock.

When we got the cage working took five men in the signal cage and went quietly down calling at the Trencherbone mine. Llewllyn Williams the undermanager of the Trencherbone mine was at the mouthing and I asked if all the men were all right there. He said, ‘Yes’.  They had suffered from fumes but everything was clear. I took him with me in the cage and we went further down. On our way down we encountered obstacles in the shaft, broken signal wires and bearers, and we were in considerable alarm as to whether the cage was going to stick or not. But it kept freeing itself and broke through all the obstacles. We got to the Yard mouthing and, on going in, saw the underground fan blown inwards towards the downcast pit. Going forward through the electric haulage house, which was the main route to the upcast shaft bottom, we found great wreckage and got through into the No.3 pit bottom shunts where we found a boy. There was afterdamp and it was hot but we went forward. We picked up the boy and sent him back up the pit.

Going forward we found Byres struggling, and we carried him to the cage. I looked about and found more dead bodies lying about, and then we decided to go down and see how the men in the Arley were. We first took the injured men up to the top ad then set out immediately to go to the Arley mine. Having passed the Yard mine, I heard a shout, ‘Send the cage to the Yard mouthing’ which was repeated mechanically over and over again. We had been at the Yard mouthing and I could not understand it, but I remembered that it would be the other Yard mouthing and we found the source of the noise. It was a lad from the workshops, Staveley. We got him out and lifted him up and asked him what he had been doing and were there any more. He said that here was a lad close to him, dead. We took him to the top and then went down into the Arley mine again having difficulty as the cage kept sticking and freeing itself. We called to the Three-Quarters mouthing in the shaft, which was not used, instead of going down the tunnel and getting to the Arley mouthing. We asked if they were all right and they replied that they were and wanted to go up. I said there were others in a worse position than they, and they must be patient..."

-- Alfred Tonge

Only 4 men working the Yard mine that morning were fortunate enough to survive the initial blast.  However, it is likely that if Mr. Tonge had not acted as swiftly as he did, that these young men may not have been as fortunate.  The initial survivors of the blast were Fountain Byers, John Sharples, Joseph Staveley, and William Davenport.  We know from the diary entries of Fountain's brother, Ben Byers, that Fountain would survive less than 24 hours.  He left behind a wife, and child, just three days before Christmas, and was laid to rest at Wingates Parish Church on Christmas Day.

Two days after the accident, Joseph Shearer Staveley was interviewed by the Times, and gave the following account of his ordeal in the Yard mine:

The Times

December 23, 1910

The Lancashire Pit Accident - Three Hundred and Twenty Lives Lost

There is no reasonable doubt that more than 300 lives have been lost in the disaster at Pretoria Pit.

"There is not a single shadow of hope that there is a man in the pit alive," said Mr. Gerrard, the Inspector Mines.  Rescue parties were in the pit all night, and they have been working ceaselessly throughout the day, but they have seen no sign of life or anything that could lead them to suppose that life could possibly be supported beyond the area of their investigations.

When the exploring party returned to the pithead at 3 o'clock this afternoon Mr Gerrard announced that they had almost arrived at the coal face, and had found an accumulation of afterdamp and gas which stopped further progress and proved that nobody could be alive in that district.

It was thought yetserday that none of the men who descended into the Yard Mine in the morning had been brought out alive.  It has, however, been discovered today that one of the 440 men who were brought out by the Arley shaft was in the Yard Mine when the explosion occurred.  He is a lad of 16 years, named Joseph Staveley, and it seems only too clear that he is the sole survivior of the actual catastrophe.

The boy told me the story of his escape at this home at Chequerbent this afternoon.  It was in the following words:

"The fitter to whom I was apprenticed, James Berry, and the under-manager, Mr. Rushton, and I went down to the mine at 7:30AM.  The fitter and I went down to the pump house about 200 yards away from the bottom of the Yard shaft and 100 yards from the Arley Mine shaft.  We had just got into the pump house when the explosion took place.  It sounded like a cannon going off.  It knocked me to the ground, but the fitter kept his feet.  We made our way along to the Arley Pit, when the fitter fell, and I fell over him.  We had smelt the gas very strongly.  I lay there, I think, for about an hour.  When I woke up I found that the fitter [James Berry] was dead."

"I made my way up to the Arley Pit and shouted for about an hour.  About 10 o'clock a party came down.  I saw nobody else alive in the Yard Mine, and I did not think that I should be saved."

There was very little change at in the aspect of the pithead today. There was again a large and silent crowd on the colliery embankment, but there was little for them to see.

Now and again a rescue party of six with its goggles and breathing equipment would step into or out of the cage.  It was noticed that the leader of each party carried a cage with a bird in it.  The first few birds which were brought back to the surface were alive.  At length one was seen to be dead, and that little incident exercised a singularly powerful impression on the minds of the onlookers.  It brought vividly home to them the difficult nature of the rescuers amid the foul and heavy air of the mine and showed how illusory was the hope of finding any of the imprisoned men alive.

The real picture of the disaster is to be seen not at the colliery but in the neighbouring townships.  Every other house at Chequerbent and Wingates had its blinds drawn today, and few families have escaped losing one or more members.

A Wingates fmaily has lost the father and five sons, and a Chequerbent family has lost the father and three sons.  The last case has a peculiar pathos, as the youngest son was making his first descent into the mine.

 

It is now known that Joseph was not the sole survivor from the Yard Mine explosion.   However, it is to date, the only known article where Joseph Shearer Staveley's account of the day's events were published in his own words. Two days after the disaster in the pit, Joseph's father gave an account of Joseph's ordeal to the Guardian as follows:

Excerpted from The Guardian

Friday, December 23, 1910 - Page: 7

A BOY'S ESCAPE

"One of the few workers in the Yard mine who escaped was Joe Stavely, aged 16, of Chequerbent.  Stavely's father has given the following account of his son's experiences:--

The boy went down the pit about seven o'clock to help in carrying out some repairs in the Yard mine.  He was engaged on some job a short distance from the pit shaft when the explosion occurred.  There was first a gust of wind that brushed him and his companions about.  Next came a loud report which deafened him.  All the lights in the neighbourhood were extinguished, and in the black darkness which followed the boy lost touch with all his companions save a workmate named James Berry.  No Sooner had he found Berry than he lost consciousness.

When the lad came to himself he imagined for a moment that he was in bed, but finding after a lapse of a little time that he was fully dressed he awoke to a sense of his true position.  He felt round with his hands until he came across Berry.  But his companion showed no signs of life, and the lad left him, fully convinced that he was dead.

Stavely then set out to reach the Yard mouthing.  He was unable to keep his feet at first, the gas or the shock of the explosion having affected his head, but eventually his head cleared and he groped his way along the roadway, running at times where it was level going, climbing next minute over falls, until he reached the pumphouse at the mouth of the Yard mine.  There he shouted for help, and his cries were heard at the Trencherbone pit mouthing.

Mr. Tonge and several other colliery officials were by his side in a short time, and the manager, hearing the story, told him that he was a lucky lad.  He was brought to the surface about ten o'clock, and it fell to the happy lot of his father to meet him in the colliery yard and convey him home."

 

An article published in the Guardian the first week of January suggests that Joseph Staveley did not suffer any long lasting effects from his ordeal, and returned to work just after the New Year:

Excerpted from The Guardian

Monday, January 02, 1911 - Page: 6

"Joseph Staveley, of Park Road, Chequerbent, the only person to escape from the Yard mine, is back again at work, looking none the worse for his awful experience.  He is a fitter, and at the time of the explosion was working near the bottom of the shaft, where he lay unconscious for some time on the dead body of a companion.  Several hours elapsed before he reached the surface.  On Saturday he was in the engine shed assisting in the repair of a locomotive, and he reported himself quite well again."

 

In January 1911 Joseph testified during the inquest about his experience in the mine:

Excerpted from The Guardian

Saturday, January 28, 1911 - Page: 9

"Joseph Staveley, the sixteen-year-old boy who survived the explosion, said that a strong blast of wind threw him down, and the lamps went out.  He and another fitter got halfway to the shaft and then they became unconscious.  They had felt it coming over them for some time before, and tried to encourage one another on.  When he recovered consciousness again, he felt about and put his hand on the waterpipes.  He knew whither these led, and he followed them till he got to the bottom of the shaft and met a rescue party."

 

James Berry Jr., who died in the mine next to Joseph Staveley, was 21 years of age. Mr. Rushton, the under-manager, also perished, aged 32 years.

Excerpted from The Guardian, December 22, 1910

"Mr. William Rushton, the under manager, was found in the underground office.  He had been blown out of his chair, and there were injuries to his head."

 

Richard Redmayne, the Chief Inspector of Mines, was responsible for leading the investigation into the accident.  During the inquest, William Davenport was called to testify. Clearly he suffered long lasting effects as a result of his injuries during the blast, and two months after the explosion, he still could not recall the events of that day:

Excerpted from The Guardian

Thursday, February 23, 1911 - Page: 6

A BOY AND HIS MEMORY

"William Davenport, one of the two boys who were the only survivors of the disaster, was called.  At the inquest Davenport was unable to give evidence, his memory of the explosion having quite gone.  He has been very ill since the accident, but has improved in the last few weeks; and Mr. Redmayne desired to make sure that since the inquest his memory had not returned.  Mr. Redmayne mentioned that at the West Stanley disaster a survivor who recovered his memory after an illness enabled the inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter.

Davenport was asked: 'Is your memory any better at all?'--He answered: No, sir.

You don't remember anything? --Nothing.


He then left the witness's chair. "

 

Redmayne ultimately concluded that a 20 yard section of roof along the North face of the Plodder district mine had collapsed the day prior to the explosion, and ultimately ruled that this collapse had resulted in fire-damp gasses accumulating in the cavity left behind after the collapse, which was then ignited, likely by a faulty miner's lamp.

The blast had been reportedly heard and felt up to four miles away, and initially claimed the lives of 343 of the 347 men working in the Yard mine that fateful morning.  Some close to the source of the blast died instantly, others suffocated due to the ensuing high levels of trapped carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gasses or 'after damp' as the miners called it.  There were a few minor injuries reported from the neighboring Trencherbone and Arley mines, and some working those seams were also sickened by the gas, but there were no fatalities at these other mines as they were separately ventilated via the No. 4 shaft.  All 343 men that perished that day were working in the Yard mine.

Christmas day 1910 was a day of mourning and remembrance.  So many funerals were held that day at the surrounding churches, including the one for Fountain Byers, that his brother Ben noted in his diary that "...funeral processions were criss crossing each other enroute to their denominations....".  Westhoughton was particularly hard hit by the tragedy as more than 200 men and boys from Westhoughton died in the blast, some were as young as 13 years old.  The remainder were primarily from Daubhill and Chequerbent, others from Bolton, Atherton, and Tyldesley.  Some families were almost completely destroyed.  Mrs. Tyldesley of Chorley Road, Westhoughton lost not just her husband, but the explosion also claimed the lives of four of her sons.  The blast was so severe, that the remains of thirteen of those killed were unable to be visibly identified, and were buried in a tomb in Westhoughton Cemetery.

The remaining three survivors of the accident were pictured on postcards produced locally for sale to raise money for the Mayor's Relief Fund in an effort to aid the widows, orphans and children of the deceased.  Joseph Staveley is shown in the center of this postcard:

Three Survivors of the Pretoria Pit Explosion: Sharples, Staveley and Davenport

Image courtesy of Bolton Revisited

The Mayor's Relief Fund ultimately succeeded in raising ₤145,000 (the equivalent value of £9,046,485.61 in 2002) to help support the widows and children of those that died.

Pretoria Pit Mayor's Relief Fund

Of the three remaining survivors, another would soon be lost.  John Sharples, although he had survived the initial explosion, and by all accounts had been initially recouperating well, ultimately succumbed to pneumonia, secondary to after-damp exposure, and died a week later.  Of the 347 men that went to work in the Yard mine on the morning of December 21, 1910, now only Joseph Staveley, and William Davenport remained.

Many commemorative serviettes were produced locally as a tribute to those that had died, and listed the names of all 344 deceased men and boys.  Next to these names the following poem was printed:

They left their homes in perfect health
They never thought death so nigh
But God thought fit to take them now
And with His will we must comply

We can not tell who next shall fall
Beneath God's chastening rod
One must be first, but let us all
Prepare to meet our God

A bitter grief of shock severe
To part with those we love so dear
Out loss is great we'll not complain
But trust in God to meet again

'This hard to part with those we love
Tho' parting days will come
Yet let us hope we meet above
For this is not our home

 

The serviettes varied on border designs, but the center panels were typically the same, and a number of these are currently preserved on display at the Westhoughton Library.  Local families would traditionally display these serviettes each year around the time of the anniversary of the disaster in remembrance of those they had lost.

One can only assume that the initial relief that Staveley and Davenport must have felt after surviving the Yard Mine explosion, quickly turned to grief, and later guilt.  Why had they survived, when so many of their friends, neighbors, and collegues had perished?  Although it seems in some regards that Staveley and Davenport were hailed as miraculous survivors, one has to assume that their survival was equally resented by others who had lost so much. 

Joseph did physically recover from his injuries, quite quickly, but his life was forever altered by the events of that day.  He later served in the Royal Engineers during World War 1.  After the war he returned home to Westhoughton to settle down, and married Ethel BARRETT in 1926.  They had a son James in 1927, a daughter Mary in 1929, and a son Alan in 1936.

Joseph Shearer Staveley died in 1954.

Author: Clare M. Staveley

 

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Ian Winstanley, Alan Davies and Jackie Taylor for their assistance in researching the Pretoria Pit Disaster, and to John C. Staveley for his assistance in tracing the living relatives of this Staveley family.

 

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