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Lundhill Disaster – Chapter 1 – Half a Colliery Village Orphaned

January 1957

South Yorkshire Times January 12, 1957

Lundhill Explosion Centenary
Grim Chapter in Wombwell’s Early Mining History
Catastrophy that Orphaned half a Colliery Village

On February 19, 1857, a little family living in one of the “Counting Houses” at the angle formed by the Elsecar and Wentworth roads at Brampton were engaging in the homely occupation of making “herb beer.” They were placing the bottles at the top of the cellar steps when they were momentarily startled by a loud “bang.”

Someone remarked that one of the corks had “blown” but when they examined the bottles they found to their surprise that they were all intact. Shortly after this they were attracted to the window of the cottage overlooking the highway by the sight of crowds of pale faced women hurridly making their way from West Melton in the direction of Hemingfield.

That was the first intimation this family had of explosion at Lundhill Colliery – the greatest mining disaster in the history of mining at Wombwell. The hundreth anniversary of that overwhelming catastrophe falls on Tuesday, February 19 this year.

Mass of Flame

The physical horror of the Lundhill explosion is now almost faded out against the background of history but a brief account of the sorrow and devastation it caused will be sufficient to convey to the present generation something of the frightening impact it caused on Wombwell and the surrounding district. This is the story as briefly recounted in an old time Chronicle.

“1857, February 19th.

Explosion at the Lundhill colliery belonging to Messrs Taylor and Co. The Barnsley  seam of coal, which was 200 yards from the surface, was won after two years sinking on April 14, 1855. The explosion which occurred about noon ignited the coal and by evening the flames had such a hold that the cupola appeared one mass of flame. In order to subdue the fire it was found necessary to turn water into the pit, so that several months elapsed before the bodies could be recovered.

In some instances the entire male members of families were swept away. One family, named Kellett, lost seven sons. The verdict of the jury was that it was ‘criminal neglect, but accidental.’

214 persons were at work, of whom 25 were rescued, 189 being killed. There were 90 widows and 220 orphans left. 185 corpses were recovered, four bodies not being found. Relief fund raised nearly £8000. Estimated loss to owners £20,000.

149 of those who perished were interred at Darfield Parish Church in four graves, a monument marking the place. The last body recovered was that of Matthew Broadhead on July 16, 1857. By the end of March 1860, 46 of the widows and remarried.

And please do not be hard all cynical about the “dear sorrowing” women who were in a hurry to find new husbands. Remember that for the widows and orphans of those days it was either that or starvation.

A Darfield Memorial

This disaster had a violent impact not only on Wombwell but on the whole country. Photography had not then been developed but the newspaper sent special artists over to sketch the heart rending scenes. That their task was achieved graphically and apparently with great accuracy may be gathered from drawings to be found in museum copies of “Lundhill illustrated” of the period.

Few remaining evidences of the existence of this pit remain on the public playground now popularly known as “the hilly fields,” but the walled in shafts, engine beds and chimneys were there within the memory of people still living.

An imposing memorial to the victims stands over the mass grave overlooking the Dearne in Darfield Churchyard where they were taken for burial, because at that time Wombwell had no burial ground.

One of the last chimneys was dropped when Mr JA Hall, formerly Yorkshire miners president and now chief welfare officer of the North Eastern Division of the NCB was a schoolboy – 60 years ago.

The chimney stood near the isolated houses at the end of Lundhill Row and when it fell it came within a few inches of overwhelming the inhabitants. As a preliminary to the dropping of the chimney one side had been cut out and supported with wood props. During the night an unexpected gale brought the chimney down in the direction of the property which it would have destroyed and it reached a few feet further. Mr Hall remembers schoolmaster Brown at Hemingfield drawing on the blackboard a diagram showing that when tall chimneys were dropped they inevitably broke in their fall and did not reach as far as was expected.

Lundhill Pit was sunk in 1855, and therefore was newly established at the time of explosion. Lundhill  Row was built to accommodate the workers and what is now Lundhill Wesleyan reform Chapel was formally the blacksmith shop and stables. After the explosion the pit was reopened and continue working until the 1890s. It was closed by the then owners the Wombwell Main company, who found it practicable and more convenient to wind the coal from Wombwell Main.

There are at least three people still living who worked at Lundhill Colliery as boys. Coal  from Lundhill was taken by a branch line running from the pit to the canal at Greenland, and over the canal to the Elsecar branch line by a steel bridge which could be lifted and lowered.

Mr J.A.Hall’s Mother

The files of the “South Yorkshire Times” contain many stories of old Lundhill and a considerable amount of testimony by people who were eyewitnesses. One of these was Mr J.A.Hall’s mother, who saw the explosion while she was making her way down the field from school at Heingfield. The disaster occurred shortly after noon. The pit was ventilated by furnace and naked lights were being used.

It is necessary to go not more than 30 years back to find a first-hand story by 90 years old Mrs Mary Morris, of Darfield, who at 22, was the youngest person widowed by the disaster. Her maiden name was Mary Shepherd and her first husband was Harry Hawcroft, by whom she had two sons. Her second husband was William Morris, an old bellringer of Darfield Parish Church, by whom she had eight more children. Brought up in a household which have been impoverished by a father who “drank a row of houses” Mrs Morris married early and at the time of the explosion she and her husband were living in a cottage which form part of the old Horse Shoe buildings in High Street. Her second child was born four months after its father had been killed. This is Mrs Morris’s story:

“We were going about our work unconcerned when we heard a terrible bang. We realised at once that the pit had gone up. We all raced over the fields, those who had husbands and sons in the pit getting there first. At the top of the hill we were confronted by an appalling sight. Fire was billowing out of the pit mouth and rags and remnants were flying all over the place. Three of us had married three brothers but I was the only one of the 3 to be left a widow. It was a terrible shock to the district and Lundhill suffered badly.”

Incidentally Mrs Morris never drew a penny from the Lundhill explosion fund.

Identification Problem

The story about the family who were making “herb beer” was told to a “Times” reported nearly 30 years ago by Mrs Elizabeth Ashton, whom at the time of the disaster was 11 years of age. Incidentally, one of her sons by her first husband was the late Mr William Beardshall, for many years a hairdresser and a prominent figure in the life of Wombwell. At that time coal was being worked by Earl Fitzwilliam up what was known as the Planting Colliery in Coley Lane behind the cottages. Here is Mrs Ashton’s story:

“Looking towards the colliery we could plainly see the smoke and flames belching out of the pit shaft. My father was one of the first to volunteer for rescue work, but he was not allowed to go down the pit as the ‘Lords’ men had been warned that the danger of another explosion was too great. I rushed to the pit with a number of women for the purpose of identifying the bodies and actually saw many of the dead brought out. They were not easy to identify as they were all as black as coal. One of the victims was Charles Milner, landlord of a long forgotten public house at Westfield’s, West Melton. Milner and his wife had been estranged and she would not go to the pit to identify him. We were unable to do so and he was eventually buried among the ‘unrecognised’ in Darfield Churchyard. Milner had a premonition of the disaster in what he described as  ‘a queer dream.’ He did not want to go to the pit but his wife insisted on him doing so.”

Other Disasters

Mrs Ashton recalled that just prior to the Lundhill disaster 11 men were killed in an explosion at Tingle Bridge colliery, Hemingfield, and two from Broomhill died later. This occurred on St Thomas’s day, the date being stamped on her mind because it was then the custom at Wentworth House to hand out to tenants large pieces of beef. Likewise on “Collop Monday”(the day before Shrove Tuesday) the Fitzwilliams also distributed to their tenants collops of bacon. “It used to be very thick and very fat,” she said, “but it was always very welcome.”

Evidence of the uncertainty of the tenure of life among miners in those days is the fact that less than three years earlier six men have been killed at Lundhill Colliery by being blown out of the shaft while engaged in sinking operation. 59 perished at the explosion at Edmunds Main Colliery, Worsbrough Dale on December 8, 1862, six by falling down a shaft at Thrybergh Hall Colliery on November 30, 1863, and 334 as a result of explosions at Old Oaks colliery, Barnsley on December 12 and 13th 1866.