Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Lancashire mines

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 27, 2009

Report from the group building an exhibition about Salford:

This week’s talk was by local historian Glen Atkinson who specialises in the history of Lancashire’s mines. Last week we studied ‘Which Side Are You On?’ by Ken Loach, which documented the 1984/85 miners’ strike. Some astounding facts made Glen’s history just as relevant such as the fact that the last boy to die in the pits was an apprentice electrician at Golbourne pit aged 19 – in 1979.

Glen recounted a hailstorm of details and statistics about various pit accidents such as that which happened at Clifton Hall Colliery in 1876 where the cages smashed mid-shaft and 330 men and boys were trapped for five days until they were raised two at a time in a bucket.

Glen recounted the sheer heroism of rescue crews who fought underground fires. During the early history of the pits unskilled labour was drafted in to deal with fires. Serious fires brought help from other collieries (even though they might be bitter commercial rivals).

He emphasised how bad things had to be before mine owners would stop working in a colliery. Often private ‘mill’ fire brigades were dispatched down pits in brass helmets. This was long before the days of breathing apparatus.

Often the solution to a pit fire was to brick it up and let it burn itself out. If there was a fire in one section of a pit the rest of the pit would remain working.

These types of ‘accidents’ were fairly common. There were however genuine ‘disasters’ on a wholly different scale. The Salford coalfield was generally considered to be safe (although there were four incidents claiming 80 lives in that coalfield in one year). Boys who had idled their time exploring old workings instead of working were ironically able to lead men to safety.

At Pretoria Pit in December 1910 370 men and boys were killed instantaneously in an explosion four days before Christmas. Glen encouraged those who were interested to go to the annual memorial church service where the bell is rung 370 times. The centenary of the tragedy is going to be commemorated next year with various events.

The explosion happened at 9.30. Roadways collapsed. The shaft was blocked by timber and debris. Cages collapsed. Rescue teams came from Agecroft, which was connected to Pretoria by underground passages. (Many pits were interconnected by underground tunnels and the underground canal, which also drained the pits).

One positive side of the disaster was the speed with which insurers (in particular the Prudential) were willing to pay out to grieving families. One result of the Pretoria disaster was that naked lights (candles) were eventually phased out of pits.

Glen and Paul also touched on ghost stories surrounding the pits; and there was a debate about whether militancy had actually achieved anything.



One Response to “Lancashire mines”

  1. Sally Boyd said

    Here at the Octagon Theatre Bolton, we will mark the 25th anniversary of the Great Miners’ Strike by reviving The Enemies Within (14 Dec – 19 December 2009). The Enemies Within is a deeply moving piece of verbatim theatre and a compelling retrospective look at the most important industrial relations disputes since the 1926 General Strike.

    The play was created in 1985 using real-life accounts of striking miners and their families following interviews conducted by our Artistic Director David Thacker, writer Ron Rose and the cast. his piece tells the real stories behind a scar that has refused to heal.More info here

    We are also holding one of our Investigate days – Who Needs Socialism? to discuss some of the issues in the show. This will be held on 19 December. More info can be found at

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