The Pretoria Pit disaster took place on December 21, 1910, in Westhoughton, Lancashire, a town just a stone’s throw from where I grew up. The pit employed 2,500 men and boys, all of them local, and many from the same families. On the day of the disaster, 900 men and boys clocked on for the early shift, while the rest of the community finished their Christmas preparations. Many of the miners had, in the past, complained of about gas and hot air in the mine.
Unbeknownst to the miners that morning, the previous day saw a 20-yard (18 meter) section of the roof had collapsed further down the mine. It should have been cleared before the miners clocked on that morning, but it had not been. This caused a build-up of flammable gas within the now enclosed space. At 7:50 a.m a faulty safety lamp ignited the gas, resulting in a huge explosion and causing a wall of hot coal dust, carbon monoxide and methane gas to fill the mine. Of the 900 men and boys who clocked on for work that morning, 348 of them died.
This poem was inspired by the story of Ben Byers, whose brother, Fountain Byers, was one of the 348 who died. Fountain was brought out alive, but died a short time later of his injuries. Fountain was buried on Christmas Day, 1910. The worst affected family, however, was that of Mrs. Miriam Tyldesley. She lost her husband, four sons and two brothers.
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 14-years-old and worked in the mill
When the news jolted 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 grabbed our coats 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 menfolk 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, and 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 brother, Fountain, just died … and Mum’s heart just broke.
My third brother was one of those to survive.
He was still at the pit, bringing out 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.”
They laid my brother 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 father, 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’ve seen enough of hell.”