|Company||United Westminster & Wrexham Collieries|
The North Wales coalfield, of which Gresford was part, runs from Point of Ayr, on the Flintshire coast, down to the Shropshire border. Although coal mining records date back to the 15th Century, it was not industrially exploited until the 18th Century. By 1900, over 12,500 North Wales miners produced three million tonnes a year.
Industrialist Henry Dennis of Ruabon, and his son Henry Dyke Dennis, began a coal mine near Gresford in 1907. The site was located on the edge of the Alyn Valley, between the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway (later the GWR Birkenhead to London Paddington line), and the old main road between Wrexham and Chester.
The Dennis' company United Westminster & Wrexham Collieries took four years to sink two kilometer-deep shafts, the Dennis (downcast) and the Martin (upcast), located 50 yards (46 m) apart. The mine was one of the deepest in the Denbighshire coalfield, with the Dennis shaft reaching a depth of about 2,264 feet (690 m) and the Martin shaft about 2,252 feet (686 m).
The first coal was produced from June, 1911, with full production reached before the outbreak of World War I.
There were three seams worked: the Crank, Brassey (named after engineer Thomas Brassey), and Main. House coal was produced from the Crank seam, the Brassey seam was virtually gas free whilst the Main seam was very gaseous. Working conditions at the colliery were dusty, and very warm often at over 90 °F (32 °C).
The Dennis section was divided into six "districts": the 20's, 61's, 109's, 14's and 29's districts, along with a very deep district known as "95's and 24's". All these districts were worked by the longwall system. 20's and 61's, which were furthest from the shaft, were still worked by hand, while the remaining districts were mechanised.
The coal was renowned in the area as being of very good quality and hot burning. In 1934, 2,200 coal miners were employed at the colliery, with 1,850 working underground and 350 on the surface.
Strike, mechanisation and profitability
In December 1911, the Government passed the Coal Mines Act 42 (1). The law stated that every new colliery be built with:
- Two intake airways into each shaft, to allow more air to flow into the mine
- Stated only one air intake be allowed for the movement of coal
As the Gresford Colliery was in operation before the law came into force, it was exempt. Retro digging a new shaft made little commercial sense, and not much profit had ever came out of the pit, so the Dennis's didn't undertake the required work.
After the General Strike, in which the miners were defeated, they were desperate to work and the mine owners were sat with large losses on collieries which were costing more to run. Cost-cutting measures were introduced at all mines, including in safety provision. In combination alone, these measures meant that five local collieries - Westminster, Wrexham & Acton, Vauxhall and Gatewen - shut in quick succession during the 1920s and 1930s. Mechanisation, believed by the workers and unions to improve working conditions, created more dust and hence explosions, in an economic climate where the government were reluctant to enforce regulation.
By 1934, there were two main sections to Gresford Colliery, the Dennis and the South-east, which were both part mechanised. 2,200 miners worked in three shifts, with 24 hours split into three. Many miners worked double shifts to earn extra money; despite the fact that this was illegal, nobody stopped them. The Dennis family owned a residual 45% stake in the colliery, and wanting additional profitability put manager, William Bonsall, under pressure to increase the productivity of the whole colliery.
As there was a football match on the Saturday afternoon between Wrexham and Tranmere Rovers, on Friday, 21 September, many miners doubled up their shifts so they could attend the match. This meant there were more miners down the pit than there ordinarily would have been.
The explosion occurred in the Dennis district at around 2am, the time when the men would be having their mid-shift snack. Resultantly, only six men survived the blast. An extensive fire ensued the explosion, and the mine was sealed off at the end of the following day. On 25 September, rescuer George Brown was killed on the surface when another explosion blew a seal off the Dennis shaft and he was hit by flying debris.Only eleven bodies of the miners were ever recovered, and the mine owners' docked the miners' wages half a day's pay, as the victims hadn't completed a full day's shift.
Sir Henry Walker, the Chief Inspector of Mines, chaired the inquiry which opened on 25 October 1934, at Church House, Regent Street, Wrexham. Walker was assisted by John Brass, appointed person for those who owned the mine; and Joseph Jones was the union's nominee. Both sides employed barristers, with the owners briefing Hartley Shawcross (who later became the Chief British prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials); while the miners were offered pro bono publico the services of Labour MP and barrister Sir Stafford Cripps.
Walker wanted access to the evidence, and although the pit was reopened in March, 1935, for Health and Safety reasons the Denis section remained closed, and was eventually sealed. Having adjourned the inquiry in December, 1934, by December 1936, Walker legally had to make his final report.
The report noted prior to the accident that ventilation in some districts was possibly inadequate: in particular, it was noted that 14's and 29's districts were poorly ventilated. It was also stated, in the report after the accident, that the main return airway for the 109's, 14's and 29's districts was far too small at 4 feet by 4 (according to one witness). Evidence was given that 95's and 24's district, at 2,600 feet deep, was uncomfortably hot. There were also numerous breaches of regulations regarding the firing of explosive charges in 14's district, taking of dust samples, and other matters. The colliery had made an operating loss in 1933, and the pit manager, William Bonsall, had been under pressure from the Dennis family to increase profitability. He had spent little time in the Dennis section of the pit in the months before the disaster, as he was overseeing the installation of new machinery in the mine's other section, the South-Eastern or Slant.
Subsequent to the accident a number of theories were advanced in the Report as to the explosion's exact cause: Sir Stafford Cripps, the miners' legal representative, suggested that an explosion had been triggered in 95's by shotfiring (the firing of explosive charges) near a main airway. The miners' appointed Assessor also surmised that a large quantity of gas had accumulated at the top of the face in 14's district, which was then ignited by an accident with a safety lamp or by a spark from a coalcutter. The legal representatives of the pit's management, however, suggested that firedamp had accumulated in the main Dennis haulage road beyond the Clutch (a junction on the main drift where the underground haulage machinery was located) and which was ignited at the Clutch when a telephone was used to warn miners of the influx of gas. This interpretation sought to deny that poor working practises were the ultimate cause of the disaster.
After the report was presented to parliament in January 1937, in April 1937, at Wrexham Petty Sessions, 42 charges were made against the colliery company, the manager and officials. Most were withdrawn or dismissed, but manager William Bonsall was convicted on eight counts of breaking mining safety law, and fined £140 with £350 costs.
Gresford Colliery Disaster Relief Fund
The national and local newspapers focused on stories of heroism and bereavement, with speculation about who was at fault, or what caused the disaster left alone.
The disaster left 591 widows, children, parents and other dependants. In addition, over 1500 miners were temporarily without work, until the colliery was re-opened in January 1936. After each newspaper opened its own fund, they and national donations by September 1935 totalled £565,000. The sum was divided equally split between the Lord Mayor of London's "Mansion House Fund" and the Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire's "Denbighshire Fund." The local committee which met in Wrexham took monies from both funds, and appointed a visitor to ensure that immediate relief was distributed in the form of grants and temporary weekly allowances. The two funds were amalgamated in July 1935, under the provision of a trust deed to form the Gresford Colliery Disaster Relief Fund, with three trustees: the Lord Mayor of London, the Governor of the Bank of England and the Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire. They devolved power to a local administration committee, who paid monies via an honorary actuary. The fund was wound up after the deaths of the last dependants, and donated residual monies to the creation of the memorial to the victims unveiled in 1982.
After the accident
Only 11 bodies were ever recovered, and the mine remained sealed off for six months after the explosion. Districts of the mine were gradually reopened, although the Dennis district, where the explosion occurred remained sealed.
Coal production restarted in January 1936, and by 1945 there were 1,743 men employed.
Gresford was officially closed on 10 November 1973 due to a combination of exhaustion of existing coal reserves and geological problems.
To this day, Wrexham Library has the memorial book on display with a list of the poor souls still buried underground. There is also a painting in All Saint's church, Gresford, depicting scenes from the disaster and rescue.
Nine years after the closure of the pit, in 1982 the head gear wheel was preserved as part of the Gresford Disaster Memorial. It was dedicated on 26 November 1982, in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the surviving relatives of those miners killed in the disaster. In 2000, as a final act of remembrance, the names of all those who lost their lives in the pit were added to the memorial.
On the 75th anniversary in 2009, various memorials took place, including Wrexham F.C. delaying their match by 15minutes - as they would normally have done in the days when the mine was working.
- "Gresford Colliery". BBC. 2006-12-12. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
- "Gresford colliery". WelshCoalMines.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
- Gresford Colliery Explosion, Hansard, 23-02-37
- "The Gresford Colliery Disaster - The Real Price of Coal". Wrexham Borough Council. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
- Report by Sir Henry Walker in Colliery Engineering, March 1937
- For example, at the inquiry one of the pit's 'deputies' (whose job was in theory to oversee the safety of the workings) admitted that he also carried out shotfiring during his shifts, in addition to his other duties. It was revealed that he in fact fired more charges during his shift than a full-time shotfirer could have safely carried out.
- Inquiry Failed to Heal the Wounds, Wrexham Chronicle, 30-09-04
- Report by Sir Henry Walker in Colliery Engineering, March 1937
- "Gresford Colliery Disaster Relief Fund MSS". Flintshire Record Office. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
- The Gresford Colliery Disaster - The Real Price of Coal at Wrexham County Borough Council
- Gresford colliery at WelshCoalMines.co.uk