HISTORY OF LANCASHIRE BLOG 5 – Disastrous Lancashire

OK another quick blog from my personal archives , I was toying with doing a book based on the disastrous side of Lancashire but I am parking it for a while whilst I start on another project. Here is some of the work I started , I found there were many unfortunate events in the history of the area ranging from natural disasters , fires and plane crashes.

The Pretoria pit disaster – Atherton / Westhoughton

This was the largest disaster in terms of loss of life that the Lancashire mining communities felt as well as being one of the deadliest in the country as a whole. The disaster took place at the no 3 bank pit at Hulton Colliery on 21st of December 1910. 344 people never saw Christmas and the area was devastated for years to come.
The location near to Atherton (although the majority of the victims were from Westhoughton and parts of Bolton most notably Daubhill) was in the middle of the South Lancashire coal field. The timing around Christmas and the sheer number of deaths was beyond belief and huge numbers of families were devastated in the area. The explosion itself occurred just before 8am with most the men already hard at work down the mine. The cause was thought to be  some faulty equipment , in this case a damaged safety lamp. The flame lit the methane and firedamp in the area , the ignition of the gas led to a further coal dust explosion and the tight underground chambers as you can imagine were devastated. Nearly all the men in the no 3 pit (Plodder mine) were killed, most thankfully instantly and with one small mistake a community was lost. Other nearby pits felt the explosion and those that were not trapped or injured came to help.Initially it was too dangerous to descend the shaft as steam was bellowing up , One man in fact died , with rumours he was looking helplessly for his sons below, in a rescue attempt , he was later given a heroes funeral. It was a short while before rescuers entered , with the Howe bridge rescue team arriving from Leigh within an hour. Out of the hundreds in the no 3 pit only 2 managed to escape with their lives , this is testament to the scale of the disaster. As was common at the pits even in 1910 , many of those who had died were just boys , the youngest in this occasion being 13 , records show that over 30 of the casualties hadn’t seen their 16th birthday, a harrowing thought. Many locals again braved the conditions to search for survivors and recover bodies, they descended the mine with safety lamps , Canaries and mice to detect gas. Unfortunately it was quickly apparent that it was a salvaging operation. A tangible memory to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice sits at Westhoughton library where a watch , stopped at 7.50 am , stays on display as a constant reminder of that horrible day.
A Bolton Man awoke late and missed his shift at the no 3 mine almost certainly saving his life in a show of fate.
The owners of the pit’s nearby , the hulton colliery company, put the workers straight back to work and within two weeks, which included a truly awful Christmas for many, men were back working down the pit. A quite disgusting tale of neglect by the owners made worse that the men were working underground weeks before the last body of there comrades was recovered.
The local parish council has made extensive efforts to uncover details of all those who died and of the general event itself , these records are available to anyone wishing to trace a relative of the disaster. These included the horrifying case of a Mrs Tyldesley who lost her husband , fours sons and two brothers in the incident.
I think the words of the then mayor of Bolton , a Mr J Cooper, highlights the sheer risk the rescuers took in order to save their friends and shows the great miners spirit.
“True courage is to look fear in the face and not to lose mastery of yourselves.These men, whilst recognizing the greatness of the risk they ran, controlled natural fear with the hand of courage and calmly did what was considered right. The men had no thought of themselves, going to the pit without hope of reward, not seeking fame, but as a duty towards their fellows.”
Among the rescuers was the pits general manager a Mr Tongue , who rushed to the pit after hearing the explosion , he was the first to descend into the unknown conditions of the mine , later receiving a life saving medal , which is on display at Bolton Museum.
After the event a postcard showing the faces of those who had survived was sold in order to raise money for the survivors families , some of whom did not have insurance. The locality gave generously to provide this financial assistance. eventually nearly £150,000 was raised which helped with the practicalities of the loss.
A large memorial plaque , revealed in 1911 , takes pride of place in Westhoughton Cemetery. An eyewitness account of the disaster was also recently recovered.
In terms of loss of life it was a true Lancashire disaster and we should try to remember the men and families who suffered. it makes you think how lucky we actually are these days.

Pathe news and the mining tragedies
I found a couple of videos of local mining disasters on the Pathe news on-line archives. These are good sources and bring to life the aftermath of a mining tragedy. The first video shows the aftermath of the Bickershaw colliery disaster in which 19 men lost their lives in 1932. The video shows a bleak working mining landscape , being too young to have lived with the mines , it really highlighted how industrial and honestly dark the mining complexes were. The video also shows local mourners amassed at the pit head. The second video shows the aftermath of an explosion at a mine nearby in Ashton In Makerfield again in 1932. The fact that 2 incidents occurred in the same year , on the same coalfield within miles of each other highlights the true risk these men took. The film again reminds the public of how grateful they should be to the men who risk everything to power there lives and also encourages donations for the relief of those affected. This video archive is well worth a watch to get in touch with the reality of mining in South Lancashire. The BBC also has some video archives of local mining disasters including footage of the Hapton Valley Pit disaster which took place quite late in march 1962. As safety improved and pits reduced , problems were less later on but this highlighted that danger was always apart of life in the pits. 19 men lost their lives after an explosion 750ft underground at the edge of the union coal field near to Burnley. The video also includes rather unusually the words of some of the survivors of the day , which will be documented for the future as well as details regarding a memorial banner erected in memory of the victims.

Horror Underground – Moss colliery explosion 1871, Ince in Makerfield
It was apparent that something was not right when plooms of smoke were spotted escaping the pit via the mining shaft, the mine situated near to Wigan , had only been operational a few years before disaster hit. Men were trapped underground in horrific conditions , as the explosion occurred some miners were descending the shaft , receiving horrific burns as the heat rose. The pit entrance was seriously damaged and it took a couple of hours of frantic mending for the lifts to be fixed. whilst the rescuers cleared debris and mended equipment , many of the survivors some trapped and injured waited helplessly in horrific conditions for help. It must of been hell waiting for help that might not arrive particularly as the risk of firedamp ignition was always a possibility that everyone could smell. it would test the nerve of even the strongest person. Gas was indeed thick in the air and parts of the seem walls were beginning to light. As the rescuers descended further down to the deeper pit lines they were greeted by devastating scenes with numerous men helplessly screaming. Many had already died , as many men were brought up as possible while others tried to contain the increasing fires with fire extinguishers bought down from the pit head. It was shortly after that a second disaster occurred , the families and onlookers at the top heard a huge explosion and fears for the rescue team as well as the other men arose. Fortunately the rescue team survived a little shook up but that spelt the end of any realistic attempts of saving any more lives, the fate of the men beneath had been sealed. Many were injured in the worst ways imaginable and when all had settled 70 people had died. The decision was then made that it would be best to bury the pit , this while sealing the fate of those below would help starve the fire of oxygen and suppress any further damage. The decision was later taken to remove the seals with a view at bringing up the bodies of those who had perished, it was immediately apparent that not all was well as explosive gas escaped once the seal was broken. Just as a rescue team was debating a decent, at the shaft opening, a fire ploom shot out , throwing the men off their feet , a further two men lost their lives in this incident and others received burns, it was clear to all the fire had not stopped and the mine was still causing problems. This time they decided the safest thing to do was to flood the mine completely to put out the remaining fires. The onlookers nervously awaiting news of the loved ones began to panic and numerous local police were brought in to keep people away from the mine. They stayed on duty throughout the night , shortly after the pit was flooded a huge explosion took place around 4am , which could be heard in neighbouring Wigan, this threw huge amounts of rock, wood and debris in the air and the on duty bobbies ran and dived for cover.
Months after the incident , charred bodies were being recovered as the mine had been drained. This must of been horrific for the next of kin. The mutilated bodies were near impossible to identify , the majority simply couldn’t, others had to identify them from clothing , shoes etc as the faces were disfigured.
It was nearly 2 years before the last of the human remains was brought above ground.
The incident was probably the most horrific of the local mining disasters , not the worse in numbers but the circumstances were disturbing and the conditions that people died and were trapped were hard to imagine.
A memorial was erected in the near by Ince cemetery as a reminder of those dark events the area played host to.

What Lies beneath – The lost village of Stocks in Bowland

The location of the lost village situated in the Dalehead valley on the Lancashire / Yorkshire border could trace itself back 1,000 years. That was until the decision was taken to flood the settlement to provide water for the growing metropolis at Blackpool. With the construction of a large dam flooded the historic valley and Stocks was literally wiped off the map, the only legacy being the reservoir that takes its name.

The decision was pushed as existing reservoirs serving the Fylde coast, namely around the river Wyre, further west couldn’t cope with the growing population of the Fylde coast. The cooperation in charge of providing the service, The Fylde Water board, desperately needed to increase capacity. They decided that the site would be ideal, although some distance away, the water was good and in a heavy water catchment area. The board began purchasing land in the area, the final nail in the coffin for the village being the Fylde water Board Act of 1922 which signalled a complete go ahead for the flooding of the valley , village and construction of a large reservoir on the site. Some locals sold land for inflated prices but most were against the destruction of their homes. The sad reality was that the government gave powers of compulsory purchase of property to the board and those families, some living in the village for generations, had no choice other than to leave.

Approximately 344 acres of green land and the village were to be flooded to service the Fylde’s water needs; the construction process was long process with many workers braving harsh conditions and heavy labour to complete the construction fete.  Graves in the village were exhumed and buried safely a mile away on higher ground; these were consecrated by the Bishop Of Bradford. The church, St James’s, itself didn’t survive the flood , although the company built a new church using the foundations of the old in 1938.The village which had stood for centuries was lost , buildings destroyed included a village store , known locally as the “travellers rest”, the Temperance Hotel and the village post office as well as numerous dwellings (around 20 houses) and farms. I often imagine how it would have been sat on a hill watching as the place you had grown up was flooded before your eyes , it must have been hard. Progress sometimes deems these things necessary but you have to feel for the locals who gave up everything for a population miles away, most of whom had never heard of the village and were unaware of the sacrifices they were forced to make , so a staple of life, something we sometimes take for granted, could be provided.

The modern day area is now run by United Utilities with the Forestry commission taking control of the nearby beauty spot GIsburn Forest. On days of severe drought, if you look out to the reservoir from the edge you can sometimes see the foundations of the buried village. It is worth remembering this when you next turn on your tap on to fill the morning kettle.

 

The 1961 Weeton Rail Crash

The serious rail crash occurred on the 16th July 1961 at Singleton Bank next to the Fylde village of Weeton. The 8.50 train traveling from Colne to Fleetwood (the station was axed as part of the Beeching report) collided with a stationary ballast train at approximately 50mph. The large works train was working on the nearby signal box and was too slow to move off , the express train had no chance of stopping and slammed into the rear wagons at approximately 10.30 in the morning. The passenger train mounted the back carriage and flew into the air before crashing to earth at the side of the track. A photo of the wreck shows the passenger train on top of the ballast wagons, as other parts fell some 15ft down the embankment. When the dust has settled 7 people died (6 passengers and the driver) and some 116 people received injuries, it was a great loss but those injured could consider themselves lucky in the circumstances of the crash. The impact of the crash completely obliterated the rear works wagons, the guard of the stationary train saw the approaching train and jumped clear, escaping with bruises and considerable shock. The passenger trains drivers cab and first class carriage were completely destroyed by the impact.

Lives were undoubtedly saved by the prompt response of the local emergency services , mostly coming in from Blackpool , who had arrived at the scene within 6 mins , which considering the villages remote location was very good. As the scale of the disaster became apparent more services rushed to the scene and the fire service arrived from St Anne’s.

An investigation into the incident confirmed the cause was a signalling error at singleton caused by a misunderstanding of a telephone call. The driver was helpless, a test at the site involving a diesel locomotive confirmed that due to the track , he would not of seen the train until he was within 300 yards and with the speed he would have had no chance of avoiding the crash.

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