Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Posts Tagged ‘mining’

The Price of Coal – the Senghenydd mining disaster, 14 October 1913

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 14, 2013

October 14th marks the centenary of the worst mining disaster in British history. This involved the death of 440 men and boys at the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd – 439 miners and one rescue worker. The death toll was part of the overall number of 1752 miners who died that year.

The background is important to an understanding of the disaster in that it followed a period when the safety of miners had been the subject of Parliamentary debate and legislation. The Coal Mines Act 1911 specified standards in respect of managers, safety qualifications and inspections and the provision of safety lamps and adequate ventilation. In the Parliamentary debates in November 1911 there had been disagreements about some aspects of mine safety but there was a general view, endorsed by the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, that the Act offered the possibility of increased safety standards. The mine owners, the Universal Steam Coal Company, a part of Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Ltd, were required to make improvements by 1 January 1913 but requested a delay until September. By the time of the accident in October the work had not been carried out.

With thanks to Fionn Taylor/Billy Williams,

With thanks to Fionn Taylor/Billy Williams,

The explosion happened at 08.10 at a time when 950 miners were underground and, although local rescue workers were soon on the scene, the recovery was hampered by large fires, thick smoke and roof falls.  439 miners died, including a large number of 14 year olds.  After three weeks, only one third of the victims had been brought to the surface and 11 bodies were never recovered.  The inquest in January 1914 returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’.

An Official Inquiry was held in 1914 and failed to offer a definitive judgement on the causes of the explosion but both the Company and the Colliery Manager were prosecuted under the Coal Mines Act 1911. The manager was charged with 17 offences and the Company four, and guilty verdicts were returned in respect of eight matters for the manager and one for the company.  For the offence most likely to have caused the explosion – the accumulation of coal dust – the manager, Edward Shaw was fined £5. Including the other offences the total was £24. The Company itself was found guilty on only one count – the failure to undertake ventilation work – and fined £10.  On the basis of these fines the local newspaper calculated just how small the value of the life of a miner was.

Senghenydd Colliery had been the site of a previous mining disaster in 1901 when 81 out of 82 miners had died and when there had also been an explosion. The Colliery finally closed in 1928 when the workforce was given one day’s notice of closure.

The disaster showed that whilst legislation had been passed with the intention of improving the safety of miners it was undermined both by companies arguing that improvements were too costly to be introduced right away, and by a critical lack of Inspectors. The struggle for safety in the mines continued to be pursued by the Miners’ Federation but many thousands more miners died and continue to do so in mines around the world.

In Senghenydd, the Aber Valley Heritage Museum has a display on the 1913 disaster. Resources at the Museum include mining related objects, photographic displays, archive films and interactive touch-screens.

Further Information

The WCML has a wealth of material on the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain and a volume of the work of David Owen looking at mining disasters in South Wales.

Two Web sites offer a wealth of material on the disaster and the effect on the local community:  This includes a roll call of all the known names of those who were killed at Senghenydd

The National Museum of Wales site contains material on Senghenydd and a link to the Official Inquiry Report:

David Hargreaves, Library volunteer

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The Last Pit in the Valley

Posted by wcmlibrary on August 2, 2013

During the Miners’ Strike in 1984-85, Library founders Ruth and Eddie Frow used to stand in Stretford Precinct to collect for striking miners. They would have been pleased to see over two hundred people gathered on Saturday 27 July at the site of the former Agecroft colliery to unveil a monument to the men, women and children who worked and died at the colliery over its 128-year history.

agecroft launch

Picture of the 27 July launch, courtesy of Salford Star

For the last 20 years, former miner Paul Kelly has been placing flowers at the entrance to the  colliery in Salford.

“I did it as a memorial to those people who worked and died in the pit. In 1990 the pit closed and was replaced by an industrial centre and 128 years of coalmining history was wiped out.”

Kelly hasn’t just left flowers. Together with other local people he has been involved in a project to remind other generations, including local children, about the importance that coal once played in their history and can have in their future.

Kelly is chairman of the Irwell Valley Mining Project, which is being supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  It was one of the first groups in the country to receive funding for the All Our Stories project.

For a small community project, it is undertaking a vast amount of work. As well as the memorial at the site of Agecroft colliery, there will be a book, a film, a leaflet, an exhibition, a website and an educational pack.

Central to the project is a book written by Kelly called The Last Pit In The Valley, which is semi-autobiographical as it tells the story of several generations of his family and their lives working in the mining industry.

“It is about commemorating our lives but is also an introduction to the coalmining industry with a map showing the location of pits. It will also show how it was a political decision to wipe out the industry.”

Former teacher Alice Searle, who is the secretary of the project, emphasises how important it has been to get local children involved in the work.

“Children do not know the history of this industry and the importance it played in the community. We have got a local school, St Augustine’s, involved in helping make tiles for the monument and the students from Salford College have built the monument.”

Local children planted flowers on the monument bringing together past and present generations of the community in a poignant reminder of their collective past.

Members of the project have been going out collecting interviews from ex-miners and have uncovered unpublished photographs of Agecroft colliery to use in the exhibition. At the unveiling ceremony, editor of the Salford Star, Stephen Kingston was recording ex-miners who had turned up to be part of the ceremony.

Together with the priest at St Augustine’s church, which was called “The Miners’ Cathedral”, they have sought to remind people of a mining disaster in 1885 when 178 men and boys were killed in a local pit and were buried in unmarked graves in the churchyard.

The exhibition will be launched in the church on 27 September as a commemoration of the dead and a reminder of the price paid by working class people in the mining of coal.

Kelly has been going out filming the sites of long-gone pits in order to produce a visual history of where the pits were and what has happened to the sites.

The films have been uploaded to YouTube to allow people to track the development of the project.

Searle and Kelly met when they were both involved with the Stop the War Campaign and their project has a political edge, as Kelly comments: “Coal is important. We don’t need to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for resources. It’s all there under out feet. Young local men should not have to put on a uniform and fight for fuel when they could be working down the pits and producing our own energy.”

Bernadette Hyland

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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.


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Which Side are You On?

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 16, 2009

Report on the group building an exhibition about Salford:

This week was a real treat as we put down our usual books and artefacts, sat back and studied the Ken Loach documentary ‘Which Side Are You On?’ which was blocked from transmission for 20 years due to its perceived bias towards the miners’ cause. The film moved many in the group emotionally and a lot of people were left with tears in their eyes.

Before we saw the film we heard from ex-miner Paul who worked at Agecroft Pit and was part of the 1984/85 strike. Paul pointed out the historical importance of coal to Salford as an industrial centre and the role ‘clean’ coal could have in the future. He compared the police at the time to a ‘paramilitary’ force: ‘The fighting was unbelievable’.  He touched on the forthcoming postal workers’ strike and said that he thought the aim of Thatcher and her heirs (he included Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in this) was and still is (some may argue) to crush union militancy.

Paul’s experience had taught him that you have to fight (figuratively if not physically) and that it’s too easy to get academic about things like the miners’ strike. The issues that the miners fought for are alive today in our low paid, un-unionised,  service sector economy. You have to go through the experience to make sense of it.

The films was composed of snippets of miners, miners’ wives, children and supporters reading poetry, singing songs and making speeches intercut with scenes of violent repression on the picket lines.  It goes without saying that this film supported the miner’s point of view and painted Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the NUM as a pure piece of class warfare (whether you agree with that analysis or not).  The police were painted as a politicised, right wing force not disimilar to police forces in places like Latin America. At one point the miners were sparring with police on a picket in Yorkshire. At this point in the strike they were optimistic and told the police they would ‘topple’ Maggie’s government. ‘If you topple her we (the police) will be the next government’ said the police officer. It seems to me sadly true that in the history of working class struggles progress and the creation of libertarian structures are often crushed by violent repression, from Franco’s Spain to Pinochet’s Chile.

I personally was very touched by the film. I have my leanings and this film confirmed to me some of my convictions about the importance of trade unions. The role of women in the struggle was also highlighted. During the months without pay the women formed an unofficial form of welfare system which shows that working people can organise without the interference of politicians, bureacrats or bosses.

In the debate after the film there was much concern about how far police were actually prepared to go. The consensus was that the argument ‘we are just following orders’ is no defence. Alice emphasised how the strike ‘politicised’ a whole generation of women and led them to get involved with other causes such as Greenham Common.


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Salford exhibition week 7

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 1, 2009

Notes from yesterday’s meeting of the group interested in helping put together the library’s exhibition about Salford:

Alice agreed to do a presentation next week (Wed 7th Oct, 1.30pm), on her recent book tracing the history of Kersal Moor, Salford, exploring chartist history, until now.  We are currently discussing how this could fit into the final show, or be displayed alongside it, with added material gathered from the library.

Paul, who is researching the miners’ strike and aims to make a commemorative exhibition about Agecroft Pit, Salford, has agreed to do a presentation on Wed 14th Oct, 1.30pm, with an open discussion at the end and a summary of Paul’s experiences during the strike (amazing story, first hand live account).  Brian has found more material on the pit disaster at Clifton Hall Colliery and his relation who rescued people, this will also feature in the final exhibition.

I am discussing with each participant the form of display and content for their particular theme of research.

Roy has unearthed material on his relation who was arrested during the Battle of Bexley Square, but he is researching a book on Salford streets and prefers me to make the collage on this subject. So, some are directly involved in the display, others are researching its content and want me to display it after they have researched it.

John the poet arrived with Gail and I gave them the visual info, catalogues etc that I found that relates to the docks for thier forthcoming Green Bananas drama project.

Lawrence Cassidy

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Salford exhibition Week 6

Posted by wcmlibrary on September 25, 2009

I’ve been hoping to get one of the participants to start blogging about how the exhibition group is getting.  Thrilled therefore to have just got this through from Liam:

This is the fourth week I’ve attended Lawrence Cassidy’s local history sessions. The Wednesday sessions are open to all Salford residents or anyone with an interest in the city of Salford. Everyone is engaged in research to try to put together a brand new exhibition about Salford in the Working Class Movement Library.

This week’s session was extremely busy with about 25 people dropping in at some point. The sessions are situated in a large bright room at the front of the library on the ground floor. The table is spread with local history books, maps and photographs. Some new photographs that stand out in particular are images of miners from Agecroft pit before they went on Strike in the late 1970s. Paul who is sat next to me is a former miner from Agecroft who is campaigning to get a memorial to the pit.

People are chatting about their memories of Salford. One woman recounts her story of being a conductor on Salford buses. A group of people on a tour of the Working Class Movement Library joins in and adds to the throng of people.

Alice is a development worker and author of a book on Kersal Moor and its links to the Chartist movement (amongst other things). She tells everyone about a film screening of Ken Loach’s film ‘Which Side Are You On’ which was dropped by ITV because of its highly partial view of a the 1984/85 miners’ strike. The talk around the table turns to another controversial topic… socialism!

Another interesting person I meet today is a geography student from University College London who is writing his dissertation about re-development in Salford and using the session to get eyewitness accounts.

There is talk about the Clowes family, famous C19th landowners in the Broughton Park area, and Mandelberg’s Raincoat Factory. The library’s education officer invites everyone in the group to a banner making course run by the Workers Educational Association. She points out that it’s not just for women though.

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Salford exhibition week 5

Posted by wcmlibrary on September 16, 2009

We need to think of a title for this exhibition!

12 visitors.  Brilliant to see Paul come back – a former Agecroft miner who just happened to call by the library last week, to see what we’ve got on the miners’ strike (answer: loads, but – oddly – not much about what happened locally, so his input will be really valuable), and whom I introduced to Lawrence’s group who are building up our exhibition about Salford.  Naturally, it being Salford, it turns out Lawrence knows Paul’s sister…

Anne worked in Mandelberg’s Raincoat Factory in Salford, and found an image of it in the Salford Champion.

Joan and Jacqueline disucssed living in Salford 6. Lawrence brought out the maps the Library has of compulsory purchase in Salford, and the group discussed these in relation to their lived experience.


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