South Yorkshire Times January 19, 1957
Lundhill Disaster Centenary
More Stories From The Files Of The South Yorkshire Times
Horseman took the news to West Melton
Another old reader who left to posterity a story of the Lundhill colliery disaster of 1857 was Mrs Elizabeth Dawson, who until her death, lived at 14 Fitzwilliam Street, Hemingfield. Mrs Dawson was born into the family of a man named Richard Parker and from birth to her death in her late 80’s had lived in the same house. She remember when Tingle Bridge, once a hive of boatbuilding activity, was a more important industrial centre than Hemingfield. Widowed when quite a young woman, she turned her hand to midwifery and one of her first babies was the late Mr Tom Smith, for many years member of Parliament for Pontefract – her own grandson.
Born in 1844
Mrs Dawson was born in 1844 and therefore at the time of the explosion would be 13 years of age. She once related how the family were having their dinners when they were startled by a terrific “bang” which afterwards turned out to be the death knell of three of her brothers. She visited the pit frequently during the days immediately succeeding the disaster and used to recall how the pithead was practically obscured by flames and smoke. She saw many of the dead brought out and accompanied the mourners to the mass internment in Darfield Churchyard.
Horseman Brings News
Over 20 years ago another account of the explosion was related to a “Times” reporter by Mr Samuel Dawson of Britain Street, Mexborough, who was then 82 years of age. The memory was stamped on his mind graphically enough by the fact that his father Mr George Dawson, and two of his uncles were among the victims.
At that time Sam was in his early boyhood and living in what is known as Mount Terrace, West Melton.
He told us, “I was playing with my spade in the garden and my mother was busy with the washing when a man came racing up on horseback shouting, ‘Lundhill pit has fired!’ Knowing what this meant my mother left her washing, took me by the hand and ran to the pit, from which we saw a great pall of smoke rising over the housetops. My father and two of his brothers were lost, but another brother had providentially left the pit a few moments earlier.
“From February 19 to the following June when the body of my father was recovered my mother and I never missed a day’s vigil at the pit gates. The body was unrecognisable, but my mother was able to identify him by a pair of garters which she had knitted for him, and which he was wearing for the first time on the day of the explosion. After that we used to visit the parish school, Wombwell, where ‘relief’was distributed.”
Mr Dawson used to tell our miners of those days worked with naked lights, their tallow candles been stuck into a ball of wet clay and fixed on the props. He himself survived several small explosion before he finally left the pit in his twenties to work on the railway.
News traveled slowly a hundred years ago, and not until February 28, 1857, did the first intimation of the disaster appear in the “Illustrated London News” (a weekly), from copies of which circumstantial details have being extracted.
First reports gives the dead as 170, and contained mild censure of the obstinacy of miners who refuse to use safety lamps on the ground that the light from them was not strong enough!
The report, however adds, “In this case the ventilation of the mine was so good that the naked candle was deemed to be safe and the unhappy men who have died are supposed to be blameless. Practical men seem to think that some very stringent measure of policing might be advantageous with regard to the management of the mine.”
Some idea of the fearful nature of the fire may be gathered from the fact that the flames ascending the air shaft 220 yards deep reach more than 20 yards above the top, eliminating the countryside for a distance around. Telegraphic messages were sent to Sheffield for a number of fire engines, some of which soon arrived. About 4 o’clock the blaze from the air shaft began to send up clouds of sparks and pieces of burning wood. Several of the miners taken out alive were dangerously injured and one died on the Saturday morning.”
Stared Death in Face
The report goes on to relate anxious consultation between management and leading mineral viewers of the neighbourhood as to the possibility of attempts being made to explore the underground passages.
“The general opinion was that imminent danger awaited those who might make the effort, but some thought there was a possibility of the risk being not too great. Each stood ready for the attempt and each volunteered, calmly and after consideration, to face the danger greater than that of most battlefields.”
And so into the cage on this hazardous, almost suicidal mission went Mr Coe, steward for the owners (Messrs Taylor and company), Mr Webster of Wombwell Main Colliery and Mr Maddison of the Hoyland and Elsecar pits. They got to the bottom, made their way a distance of 300 yards along the south level and did all they could to make good stoppings and doors which had been blown open, this with a view to restoring ventilation.
The party were down the pit for two hours and not unnaturally their prolonged absence caused the greatest anxiety as to their fate. These fears were heightened when flames shot high up above the cupola, scattering bricks and timber over a wide area.
“The lurid glare spread over miles of country and a broad streak of soot and ashes was deposited across adjoining fields. At tween the two shafts were completely destroyed. As there was no probability of saving further lives they consider it their duty to advise the owners to close the shaft, this being the only means of ensuring that the pit will be worked again.
A few minutes after they have left the pit flames from the shaft reached a height of 50 yards. It was only after further consultation amongst mining experts from various parts of the country that the decision to seal the shafts was finally implemented on the following Monday.
The story of the gallant efforts to reach the entombed men contains some grim chapters. Here is one:
“A man named Joseph Simmons was found alive and the party seized hold of him with the intent of putting him on the chair. Suddenly, however, he broke away and rushed into one of the workings. He was caught a second time but being probably in a state of delirium from the gas he had a inhaled, once again got free and he dashed towards the workings. It was not safe to follow and he died in the pit.”