The tragedy that struck 1,000 ft down

All Our Yesterdays looks back 25 years to a mining disaster

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 13 August 1961

WOMEN waiting anxiously at the pit-head for news of their husbands and sons … rescuers going down the shaft with a canary to detect poisonous fumes … a clergyman praying for the entombed men … Salvation Army workers serving tea to the waiting families as the agonising suspense drags on …

… These are the poignant scenes which will be recalled in Granada’s All Our Yesterdays on Monday when the newsreels of 25 years ago tell the tragic story of the disaster at Wharncliffe Woodmoor Colliery near Sheffield.

At 3.30 a.m. on Thursday, August 6, 1936, an explosion in the Lidgett Seam, more than 1,000 ft. below the surface, trapped 58 miners.

The force of the blast was so great that it lifted the heavy coal tubs like match-boxes and flung them in a heap. When rescue parties reached the seam they found bodies huddled together. Only one of the 58 miners was still alive and he died later in hospital.

Since 1936, fortunes have been spent on modernising the mines both under private ownership and under the National Coal Board.

But does all this modernisation, mechanisation and improved efficiency mean that the man at the coal face is any safer?

Men carry the covered body of a miner on a stretcher

A leading expert in mining safety, Mr. James Fletcher, North West Divisional Safety Engineer of the National Coal Board told me: “The hazards are the same, the human failings the same, and there is no doubt that—given a certain set of circumstances or mistakes – a pit disaster is still a possibility.”

Apart from major explosions and fires, British miners are still paying — with their fives — the terrible price of coal. In the Lancashire and North Wales coalfield alone, an average of 30 are killed and 170 seriously injured every year.

Research is continuous. At centres like the Safety in Mines Research Establishment near Buxton. Derbyshire, coal dust explosions are simulated with a fierce realism in specially-constructed galleries in the hills. The blast, which sends flames leaping long distances, becomes doubly horrific when the imagination transfers it underground.

In recent years there has been a mass of legislation on mining operation, and some of it is confusing even to experts. But they do not object to it. They say: “If every regulation were properly observed all the time the risk of disasters would be greatly reduced. But we are always up against the human element.”

Safety in British mines today is on two levels. First, there are the specialist advisers headed by the Chief Safety Engineer of the National Coal Board in London and by his nine divisional safety engineers. Second, there are the pit safety officers responsible to the pit managers, who are ultimately answerable at law for safety precautions.

It was during the 1930’s about the time of the Wharncliffe Woodmoor explosion, that the idea of specialist safety engineers first gained ground and some mining companies began to employ them full-time. A Royal Commission on mining safety made recommendations which, though delayed by the war, have become accepted practice.

A great deal of work has been done on fire-damp (methane) ignition, which causes coal dust to explode, as in last year’s Six Bells pit disaster in South Wales when 45 miners were killed.

Modernisation has led to one great safety improvement — the widening and heightening of the “roads”, which has brought freer ventilation. Most pits have their own ventilation officer.

The danger from coal dust is being reduced by the infusion of water, under pressure, into the face workings. In some cases, the rich methane is being drawn off through pipes driven ahead of the workings and sold to the Gas Board. One of the first pits to introduce this idea was Point of Air, in North Wales.

A view of a pit from outside
The scene at Wharncliffe Woodmoor Colliery a few hours after the explosion

Disasters caused by conveyor belt fires, as at Creswell, near Worksop in 1950 when 80 men died, are less likely today because the belts, once made of rubber and other inflammable material, are being made of materials that will not ignite.

What, if anything, has disappeared from pre-war mining, apart from antiquated cutting methods? Not much.

Canaries, like the one used by rescuers at Wharncliffe Woodmoor, arc still kept in case of need, because a canary will succumb to carbon monoxide, which has no smell, before a human does.

A safety engineer said: “If all the safety recommendations made even up to 1950 were faithfully put into force, we should be well on the way to cutting the accident toll.

“But there are always those who take risks, don’t bother, or simply forget. In mining, more than in most industries, it is human weakness that is the most dangerous.”

Memories it seems, are short. Even for pit disasters.

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