27 April 2015

Memorial

 
How soon past events may be forgotten. In yesterday's April sunshine I went for another jolly stroll - this time close to Barnsley - beloved second home of Frau Meike - the award-winning architect of Baden-Württemberg blog "From My Mental Library". 

I parked at Monk Bretton Priory which I shall blog about later on but here I am thinking about something that happened in mid-December 1866. Something awful. And I only learnt about it when I ventured into the grounds of Ardsley's Christ Church as I plodded back to my car.

Barnsley was once famous throughout the land for its coal mines. Indeed, when I first hitchhiked through the area in 1969 I was struck by the town's own version of The Alps - huge piles of coal waste or what we know in England as slag heaps. Today it is so different, so much cleaner and the coal mines have all gone.

In the mid-nineteenth century, English coal mines were frequently run by unscrupulous profit-hungry capitalists who seem to have viewed  the men and boys who worked the mines as disposable commodities. Safety was not very high on the agenda and there were many deaths through rock falls, flooding, suffocation and fire.

One of the pits at Ardsley to the south east of Barnsley was called The Oaks Colliery. There had been deaths there before - notably in 1846 when seventy three men and boys had been killed in a methane explosion. But on the night of December 12th 1866 an even greater tragedy struck for 334 men and boys died in another gas explosion and only six of the men who were underground at the time survived. The next day yet more men died - would-be rescuers - bringing the total of fatalities up to 361.
This is an extract from the report in "The Illustrated London News", March 1867:-
"The news soon spread far and wide that the Oaks Pit was on fire, and all the workpeople remaining in it. The friends and relations of those who were employed in the colliery were seen running frantically towards the melancholy spot, anxious to learn the extent of the loss of life. From the village of Ardsley, Gawber, Worsbro' hill, Barnsley, Monk Bretton and other places, numbers were presently collected together on the spot. The intensest excitement prevailed, the pit hill was everywhere crowded with the wives, the children, and the friends of the sufferers below, whose cries and wailings were alone to be heard."


I can hardly imagine the impact that this disaster would have had on local communities and families so cruelly robbed of their main breadwinners. Most of the bodies were never brought out of the mine. They still lie entombed far beneath the earth's surface but thirty five were interred in the grounds of Christ Church. And I only learnt about all of this because I turned round to read the inscription on a monument that is so small and so relatively insignificant that you might think it a kind of insult to all those lost souls.

For almost fifty years, The Oaks Colliery Disaster was the worst mining tragedy in British history until the toll of the dead were surpassed at Senghenydd Colliery in South Wales in 1913 when 436 miners were killed in a similar explosion. This was the price of coal and though it was long ago, I still bow my head in respectful memory of the dead. So many forgotten heroes. And the total of the dead on the monument is wrong.Not 354 but 361 - but hey who cares about seven dead miners?

12 comments:

  1. Another poignant thing is that the memorial was erected not by the mine owners but by public subscription. I suppose that Firth Bamber and company were too busy counting the cost of lost production.
    On a lighter note Barnsley used to have a wonderful tripe shop. I bet that has disappeared along with the mines.

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    1. I noticed that myself. In other words the bereaved families probably paid for the monument themselves. As for tripe - some people speak it. But not you Adrian, no sir, not you!

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  2. Coal, such an important player in Barnsley's, Yorkshire's, and probably England's history... as you say, many lives made and destroyed by this inocuous black mineral.

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    1. By the way, t'other day I found about (and posted on) the Sheffield "Devonshire Street issue" - any thoughts on how places like Sheffield are losing their character and quirkiness due to the uniformization of our cities?

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    2. My reply was left on the "TANNU TUVA" BLOG! Visit now to receive an exclusive free offer and the chance to win a holiday for two in pretty Tortosa, jewel of secret Catalonia.

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  3. There are far too many stories of big business taking advantage of workers by completely ignoring safety. My wife was born in Barnsley!

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    1. Your wife was born in Barnsley? How did you understand her when you first met Red? I bet you needed a translator!

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  4. That was the first thing I noticed about the small monument, that it had been paid for by public subscription. I am sure the money came in penny by penny, scraped together from what the poor families of those men were able to spare (actually, they had nothing to spare), instead of having a larger one paid for by those who were responsible for the catastrophe.

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    1. I wonder where Mr Firth and Mr Bamber lived and what their graves look like and whether or not they experienced any guilt at all. They were the owners.

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  5. Some things never change YP. The Pike River Mine disaster in New Zealand in November 2010 where 29 miners who were underground at the time lost their lives in a series of explosions. Two miners were nearer the entrance and walked out. The same reasons i.e. greed were cited for the lack of sufficient safety and in 2014 I recall the Prime Minister apologising for a lack of sufficient regulation enforcement by the government.

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    1. "When profit is king, workers are merely cogs. Who cares about their happiness or safety when there are shareholders to satisfy and yachts to buy?" - David Humphrey Cameron in his book "I'm Alright Jack, Pull Up THe Ladder!"

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  6. All so very sad...but wonderful that people today and into the future are, and will be, reminded of the sacrifices made; that people are able to reflect kindly upon those poor souls who lost their lives so long ago through the monument that stands in their honour.

    By the way, Yorky...I responded to your comment in my Anzac post.

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Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.