|Date||22 September 1934|
|Location||Gresford near Wrexham, Wales|
|Verdict||underground explosion (exact cause not determined)|
The Gresford disaster occurred on 22 September 1934 at Gresford Colliery, Gresford, near Wrexham, in northeast Wales, when an explosion killed 266 men and boys. Its cause was never proved but an inquiry found that failures in safety procedures and poor mine management were contributory factors. Gresford is one of Britain's worst coal mining disasters. Only eleven bodies were recovered, the rest were left entombed in the colliery's permanently sealed damaged districts.
The Westminster and United Collieries Group began to sink the pit at Gresford in 1908. Two shafts were sunk 50 yards (46 m) apart: the Dennis (named after the industrialist Dennis family of Ruabon who were the pit owners) and the Martin. Work was completed in 1911. The mine was one of the deepest in the Denbighshire Coalfield: the Dennis shaft reached depths of about 2,264 feet (690 m) and the Martin shaft about 2,252 feet (686 m).
- Crank (Martin), a 3 ft (0.91 m) seam producing high-quality household coal. No firedamp.
- Brassey (Martin, part Dennis), a 4 ft (1.2 m) to 12 ft (3.7 m) seam delivering harder 'steam' coal for commercial use. No firedamp.
- Main (Dennis), a 7 ft (2.1 m) seam that produced softer industrial coal. Very prone to firedamp.
The explosion occurred within the Main seam of Dennis. This section, which began more than 1.3 miles (2.1 km) from the shaft bottom, was mined down a shallow gradient. Dennis was divided into six "districts": 20's, 61's, 109's, 14's and 29's. The sixth district was a very deep area known collectively as the "95's and 24's". All the districts in Dennis were worked by the longwall system where the coal face was mined in single blocks. Most districts in the Dennis section were mechanised except 20's and 61's, which were still worked by hand, because they were furthest from the main shaft (approximately 2.75 miles (4.43 km)).
Conditions in the mine before the explosion were presented in evidence at the inquiry into the disaster. Firstly underground mine ventilation in some districts of Dennis was probably inadequate; in particular, the 14's and 29's districts were notorious for poor air quality. The main return airway for the 109's, 14's and 29's districts was said to be 4 feet (1.2 m) by 4 feet (1.2 m) and far too small to provide adequate ventilation. Secondly, working conditions in the 2,600-foot (790 m) deep 95's and 24's district were always uncomfortably hot. Thirdly there were also numerous breaches of safety regulations such as the firing of explosive charges in 14's district and the failure to take dust samples.
The disaster inquiry was told that one of the pit 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 fired more charges during his shift than a full-time shotfirer could have safely carried out. Furthermore, 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. Bonsall was not a trained mining engineer and at Gresford the role of mine agent, which would normally be held by a technically experienced person with authority to stand up to both manager and owners, had not been filled for some time since the previous agent's retirement. Bonsall admitted 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 "Slant", an area in the south-eastern part of the mine's Martin section. Work on improving the Dennis section ventilation had been halted, and the inquiry's chair later confessed to "an uneasy feeling that Mr. Bonsall was overridden" on the matter.
On Saturday 22 September 1934 at 2:08 a.m. a violent explosion ripped through the Dennis section of the Gresford colliery coalfield. The explosion, which happened more than 1.3 miles (2.1 km) away from the bottom of the Dennis main shaft, started fires and blocked the main access road to all the other districts in the section. At the time up to 500 men were working underground on the night shift with more than half in the affected areas. The rest were in the Martin section about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the explosion; many there were unaware for some time afterwards that a disaster had occurred.
In Dennis the night overman, Fred Davies, who was on duty at the bottom of the main shaft immediately telephoned the surface. He told Bonsall, the manager: "something has happened down the Dennis. I think it has fired." Bonsall went into the mine to try to establish what had occurred. At approximately 3.30am, the under-manager and overman from Martin, Benjamin Edwards, reported that parts of the Dennis main road were on fire beyond the Clutch (a point where the main haulage road took a 60° left deviation) and that a large number of miners were trapped beyond the blaze. Meanwhile, the shift that was working the Slant in Martin was ordered to the pit bottom and told to get out of the mine.:p4
Only six men escaped from the inferno that engulfed the Dennis section, all of whom were working in 29's district: Robert (Ted) Andrews, Cyril Challoner, Thomas Fisher, David Jones (the district's night shift deputy), Albert (Bert) Samuels, and Jack Samuels. Some of the group were sitting taking a mid-shift break about 300 yards (270 m) north of the Clutch when the initial explosion happened. Jack Samuels, in his testimony at the inquest, described hearing a "violent thud [...] followed at once by dust" while at the face and commenting "that's the bloody bottom gone". By the "bottom", Samuels clarified that he meant 14's district, which lay below them. A colleague advised them to leave the district via the "wind road" which was the 29's air return drift. Around 30 men working in the 29's district were also told to follow them. But as the six-man lead group went ahead attempting to fan the air to mitigate the effects of the deadly afterdamp, they soon realised the other miners had not followed them. Jack Samuels described how Jones repeatedly fell back, commenting he was "done", but Samuels told him to "stick it" and shouldered the deputy up a ladder; Samuels was commended at the inquest for his bravery and leadership of the group. After a long and difficult escape up 1:3 gradients, several ladders, and past rockfalls, the six miners eventually rejoined the Dennis main road and met Andrew Williams, the under-manager, who along with Bonsall had immediately descended the Dennis main shaft on being notified of the explosion. Andrews collapsed at this point and was transferred to a stretcher: Jones returned with Williams towards the Clutch, while the remaining five went to the pit bottom and safety.
Beyond the Clutch, Williams found three falls in the main haulage road. Once he got past them he discovered a fire had started about 20 yards before the main entrance to 29's district, blocking escape from the district's further inbye, and immediately sent back for men and materials to fight it. The evidence of Williams, Bonsall and the overman Ben Edwards, who all saw the fire at this critical point, differed on how large it was: Bonsall thought they could not get close enough to it to fight it, but Edwards said that it did "not seem much of a fire", and the final report of the inquest was inconclusive as to whether the fire could have been put out if better equipment had been to hand.
However, three members of Llay No. 1 rescue team, the first group to enter the mine after the explosion, were asphyxiated by afterdamp after attempting to proceed up the mile-long return airway of the 20's district. The route, which would have taken them around the fire in the Clutch, would have eventually reached the workings of the 61's. Bonsall stated that his order to the team had been "not to go in until they got definite instructions from me, because what I had in my mind was that it would be charged with carbon monoxide, and I did not want them to go through that because there would not be the slightest chance of getting men back through it." The instruction was, however, misinterpreted, and the rescue team entered the airway, using breathing apparatus, despite the fact that their canary died instantly. John Charles Williams, the Llay team's leader, ordered them back after the airway ahead narrowed to 3 feet (0.91 m) by 3 feet (0.91 m) and less. Two of the team then in Williams' words "seemed to get alarmed" and collapsed, possibly after removing their nose clips; Williams then tried dragging a third team member for over 40 yards (37 m) towards safety before being overcome himself by poisonous gases. Williams would be the only survivor; he was said by his family to be the man who later wrote the anonymous broadside ballad "The Gresford Disaster", which was highly critical of the mine's management.
As the Llay team's attempt to gain access via the 20's return airway had proved fatal and the previous escape route from 29's was also found to be full of afterdamp, rescue efforts became focused on trying to fight the fire in the main road of the Dennis section. However, their efforts were hindered by the heat and flames in the main road and a lack of water and fire-fighting equipment. Rockfalls at the entrance to the 29's soon made it clear there was little chance of escape for the men trapped in the affected districts.:pp8-9 Besides the miners trapped in the most northerly districts, the 20's and 61's, would have been more than 1 mile (1.6 km) on the wrong side of the fire.
By early Saturday morning large crowds of concerned relatives and off-duty miners had gathered silently at the pit head awaiting news. Hopes were raised in the evening when rumours began circulating that the fire in the Dennis main road was being brought under control; families waiting at the surface were told rescue teams would soon be able to reach the miners in the 29's, the nearest district beyond the Clutch.:pp8-9
However, by Sunday evening it became clear that conditions in the pit had become extremely hazardous. Rescue teams were withdrawn as further explosions happened on the far side of the fire. Relatives were told the shafts into the Dennis section would be capped because no one could have survived and it was far too dangerous to try to recover any further bodies. The final man to leave the pit, John McGurk, president of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners' Federation, commented "there is no chance that any man is alive. I have been down in pits after ten explosions, but I have never seen anything like this. From the point where the fire is raging for twenty yards the stones are red-hot".
More explosions continued to occur within the pit over next few days. On 25 September, a rescuer named George Brown became the disaster's final victim when he was killed by flying debris after one blast blew the cap off the Dennis shaft.
In total, only 11 bodies (eight miners and the three rescue men) were ever recovered from the mine. Inquests recorded the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning. The mine shafts remained sealed for six months, after which unaffected districts were gradually re-entered. Recovery teams first entered the pit, using breathing apparatus, on March 7, 1935. The damage caused by explosions and by the water directed down the pit was severe, and efforts concentrated on building stoppings so that fresh air could be readmitted to the pit. In May, Parry Davies, captain of the Llay Main No. 2 rescue team, accompanied by two inspectors and a Ministry of Mines doctor, entered into the 20's return airway to recover the body of John Lewis of Cefn-y-Bedd, one of the members of the No. 1 team killed in the initial rescue attempts. By July, a party of men using breathing apparatus had proceeded 700 yards beyond the stoppings into the Dennis section as far as the top of the haulage road of the 142's Deep, though they found no trace of any of the missing miners. Within a matter of months, normal ventilation was restored to the Slant section: this work was, to that date, the first ever reopening of a pit by men working in an irrespirable atmosphere. However, the mining inspectors refused to allow recovery teams to go further into the Dennis districts to retrieve bodies after retrieving air samples from beyond the permanent stoppings (the mine's ventilation system), this was despite calls from the workers themselves that they should be allowed to do so. Dennis was never reopened; the bodies of the remaining 254 victims of the disaster would be left in the sealed districts.
By the end of September 1934, 1,100 Gresford miners had signed on the unemployment register. Relief funds were set up by the Mayor of Wrexham, the Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire, and the Lord Mayor of London. Their efforts raised a total of more than £500,000 for the dependants of the victims (£28.1 million in 2010).
On 25 October 1934 the official inquiry opened at Church House on Regent Street in Wrexham. It was chaired by Sir Henry Walker, His Majesty's Chief Inspector of Mines. The miners were represented by Sir Stafford Cripps; the mine owners, mindful of the fact they could face criminal charges, hired a formidable team of barristers including Hartley Shawcross. Two mining assessors, one approved by the miners and the other by the colliery management, were also appointed to assist Walker and the inquiry.
The miners' legal representatives presented theories at the inquiry as to cause of the explosion. Cripps said he believed an explosion was triggered down near the 95's by shotfiring near a main airway. The blast had ignited a pocket of firedamp which had accumulated in the drift because of inadequate ventilation and the lax attitude of the mine owners to monitoring gas levels, contrary to Section 29 of the Coal Mines Act 1911.
The assessor approved by the miners, Joseph Jones, also theorised that a large quantity of methane gas, which had accumulated at the coal face in the 14's district, may have been ignited through an accident with a safety lamp or from a spark from a mechanised coalcutter. Jones was sharply critical of the management, stating that 14's was a "veritable gasometer", that there had been "flagrant and persistent breaches of the Coal Mines Act and General Regulations" and that the deputy responsible for ordering the rescue men into 20's airway was "guilty of manslaughter".
Although recovery teams wearing self-contained breathing apparatus had re-entered the sealed pit in May 1935 (for purposes of the inquiry), both government inspectors and officials from the Westminster and United Collieries Group would not allow any further attempts to be made to access the Dennis section. Evidence of 'heating' in the air samples taken beyond the stoppings, and the consequent risks of restarting fires, were cited as the reason: Walker agreed, though at the time of writing the report he hoped "that this heating will subside in time and that then it will be safe to re-enter the Dennis Section". Permission to re-enter the section was never given and no examination or inspection of the deeper parts of Dennis were ever undertaken.
This decision was widely perceived as a deliberate attempt by the mine owners to cover up any evidence of their culpability in the cause of the explosion. As there were no other reports concerning the deeper parts of the section, the inquiry considered the explanation presented by the legal representatives of the pit's management. They countered the miners' theories by suggesting firedamp had actually accumulated further up the Dennis main road just beyond the Clutch. This gas was ignited at the Clutch when a telephone was used to warn miners of the influx of firedamp. Shawcross also suggested that the explosion might have been caused by the spontaneous heating of a pillar of coal. The assessor chosen by the mine owners, John Brass, also argued that the explosion, judging by the positions in which the bodies of the haulage men were found, had taken place at the Clutch, and that the gas had come from a new drift being driven from there to 29's for ventilation.
A year before the inquiry published its conclusion, coal production resumed at Gresford from the South-East Martin section in January 1936.
In 1937 the inquiry published its findings. Despite considering management failures, a lack of safety measures, bad working practices and poor ventilation in the pit, Walker drew very cautious conclusions in his final verdict about the cause. This was largely because the two assessors chosen by the miners and by the pit's management, and the barristers representing them, had given widely different suggestions as to the source of the explosion; though Walker suggested that Cripps's theory regarding shotfiring in 95's appeared the most likely cause.
Without any decisive evidence, the inquiry's conclusions did not attribute any outright blame or definitive cause for the disaster. It was this uncertainty that was cited by the colliery's management for keeping the Dennis districts permanently sealed. But in a debate in the House of Commons in February 1937 following the release of Walker's report, the politician David Grenfell condemned the management of the colliery because the miners' testimonies had told:
...of lamps having been extinguished by gas, blowing the gas about with a banjack, of protests and quarrels about firing shots in the presence of gas. There is no language in which one can describe the inferno of 14's. There were men working almost stark naked, clogs with holes bored through the bottom to let the sweat run out, 100 shots a day fired on a face less than 200 yards wide, the air thick with fumes and dust from blasting, the banjack hissing to waft the gas out of the face into the unpacked waste, a space 200 yards long and 100 yards wide above the wind road full of inflammable gas and impenetrable for that reason.
Later in 1937, legal proceedings were started in Wrexham's petty sessions court against the pit manager, the under-manager and United & Westminster Collieries Limited, the owners of the mine. Aside from the evidence of poor working practices, it was discovered that Bonsall had after the accident instructed an assistant surveyor, William Cuffin, to falsify records of dust samples when none had actually been taken. However the court dismissed most of the charges without the mine owners ever being called to give evidence. The only conviction against the management at Gresford Colliery was for inadequate record-keeping, for which Bonsall was fined £150 plus costs.
Bonsall was portrayed by Cripps and others as a ruthless and cynical manager, but researchers now think that he is more likely to have been a "weak man driven beyond his capabilities",:p100 whose public demeanour was reduced by the extreme exhaustion and stress of enduring over 20 hours of cross-examination at the inquiry. In contrast Williams, the under-manager, was singled out for praise because he was found to have made genuine attempts, unlike other bosses, to improve working conditions for the miners since taking the job at Gresford Colliery.
Cripps used the evidence obtained at the inquiry to call for nationalisation of the coal industry. This eventually occurred in 1947 when the pit, and others like it, were taken over by the National Coal Board. As part of the takeover agreement, nearly all the operating records and correspondence relating to the private management of Gresford Colliery were deliberately destroyed.
Gresford Colliery finally closed on economic grounds in November 1973. In the 1980s the site was redeveloped as an industrial estate. In 1982 a memorial to the victims of the disaster was erected nearby; it was constructed using a wheel from the old pit-head winding gear. The last direct link to the disaster, Mr Eddie Edwards, who began work in the mine aged 14, and who participated in the rescue efforts, died on 6 January 2016, aged 102.
The disaster is commemorated by the hymn tune "Gresford". Known as "The Miners' Hymn", it was written by a miner named Robert Saint from Hebburn, South Tyneside. The tune remains popular with many colliery brass bands, and is always played at the annual Miners Picnics around the North of England, especially at the Durham Miners' Gala.
"The Gresford Disaster" is a folk song in 6/8 time which appears to have been published anonymously and distributed as a broadside shortly after the colliery explosion. It has been widely recorded, including versions by Ewan MacColl, The Hennessys, Alex Campbell and The Albion Band. It is included in the Roud Folk Song Index (no:3089), and is discussed by Roy Palmer in his 1974 book Poverty Knock: a picture of industrial life in the nineteenth century through songs, ballads and contemporary accounts (despite being a 20th-century composition).
- Senghenydd colliery disaster, a firedamp explosion at the pit near Caerphilly, Glamorgan, killed 439 miners and one rescuer on 14 October 1913. It remains Britain's worst mining disaster.
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- Welsh Coal Mines website – details on Gresford and all the other pits in Wales