I grew up in Leigh, a small mining town nestled snugly within the bosom of the Red Rose County of Lancashire. Both of my granddad’s and great-granddad’s were miners; my dad probably would have been too, were it not for my granddad insisting that he didn’t want that for his son. My dad left school at fourteen and got an apprenticeship at an engineering works. I guess you could say he was one of the lucky ones.
Nevertheless, growing up, mining was all around me. I would watch the miners going to and from work, and I could see the winding gear from the nearby Parsonage Colliery from my bedroom window. I heard the stories too, of the collapses and disasters, and of those men and boys who went to work and never came home. Then there were those whose lives the pit took slowly. Men like my granddad, who died from silicosis, caused by inhaling coal dust for decade upon decade. He died at home, meaning there had to be an autopsy. It was damning. The pathologist wrote in his report that my granddad didn’t have lungs, he “had two lumps of solid coal dust where his lungs once were”.
Hulton Bank Colliery was located in Westhoughton, a few miles away from my hometown. Number 3 pit at the colliery was known as Pretoria Pit. The pit employed 2,500 men and boys, all of them local, many of them from the same families. On December 21, 1910, 900 men and boys clocked on for the early shift, leaving the rest of the community either slumbering away, or finalising their Christmas preparations.The miners would split up to work the five coal seams: Trencherbone, Plodder, Yard, Three-Quarters and Arley. 349 of the men went to work the Plodder seam.
Unbeknownst to those clocking on that morning, there was already a dangerous build-up of flammable gas within the mine. It had begun the previous day, when a 20-yard section of the roof had collapsed further along in the mine, effectively serving to enclose the space in which the men would be working. It should have been removed by the time the early shift clocked on, but it wasn’t. The results were catastrophic.
At 7:50 a.m. a faulty lamp ignited the gas at the Plodder seam. The explosion ripped through the space, engulfing the men in flames and a deadly cloud of hot coal dust, carbon monoxide and methane gas. Of the 349 men who clocked on that day, 344 were killed.
Many families lost multiple loved ones, but by far the worst affected family was the Tyldesley’s. Mrs Miriam Tyldesley lost four sons, two brothers and her husband.
This poem was inspired by the diary of Ben Byers, whose brother, Fountain Byers, was brought out of the mine alive; he succumbed to his injuries a short time later.
I can see it as clearly as I saw it then.
That hideous black day in 1910,
When the fates saw fit for our souls to plunder
And tear hundreds of families completely asunder.
I was fourteen-years-old and worked in the mill,
When the news came in and the world stood still.
I strained my ears, and hoped I’d misheard
That a terrible tragedy had occurred,
Further down yonder at the Pretoria Pit,
And I was told I could leave if I saw fit.
I had three brothers that worked down that mine,
Mum always worried, but they said they’d be fine.
The pit gives a living, and the pit destroys
And takes the best of our men and boys.
A friend of mine’s dad worked down there too,
We changed our work clothes and then we two
Ran like the wind through the drizzling rain,
Trying hard our composures to maintain.
We hoped against hope that all would be well
And troubling thoughts we fought to dispel.
Rounding the corner we came on the scene.
The air was thick and the smell was keen.
Women with eyes filled with fear and hurt,
Children, sobbing and clinging to their mothers’ skirt.
The men folk were stoic, but you could tell they knew
That there was very little anyone could do,
Save some semblance of hope to try and derive
That at least one or two would be brought out alive.
And so we waited, in the drizzling rain,
Wondering if we’d see our loved ones again.
By four o’clock it was almost dark.
I was cold and wet, so I walked through the park,
Back towards home to my mum and dad,
To see if any news they’d had.
As I stepped through the door I heard sobbing cries,
And my dad came to greet me with dread in his eyes.
There, by the fire my brother George sits,
Poisoned gas had shot his lungs to bits.
A cry from the parlour, so loud the devil awoke.
My other brother just died…and mum’s heart just broke.
My third brother was one of the few to survive;
He was still at the pit, rescuing both the dead and alive.
I once told my Dad, “You know, our George proclaims
That one day that pit’s going to go up in flames.”
My brother was laid to rest on Christmas Day;
What a heavy price for coal we pay!
His wife now a widow, and his newborn child,
Never knowing her dad, so gentle and mild.
When my brother to Saint Peter his name does tell,
He’ll be told, “Come on in and rest lad. You worked and died in hell”
○Eleanor Parks 2016
*Rona Lee Parks is my poetry pseudonym.