Many people remember the disaster that befell the community of Aberfan. This is not unusual due to the circumstances of what happened, the deadly consequences, and how relatively recently the accident happened. However, not many people know of, and even fewer people remember, the tragedy which occurred at the Gresford Colliery at 2am on Saturday, 22 September, 1934.
You have heard of the Gresford Disaster,
The terrible price that was paid.
Two hundred and sixty-two colliers were lost,
And three of the rescue brigade.
Down there in the dark they are lying.
They died for nine shillings a day.
They've worked out their shift and it's now they must lie
In the darkness until Judgement day.
- Excerpts from the 'Ballad of the Gresford Disaster'
The Birth of the Colliery
Lying just within the boundaries of North Wales, the Gresford coalfield stretches far and wide. It runs from Point of Ayr on the Flintshire coast down to the Shropshire border.
It seems that mining within the area started quite early on. There are records dating back to the 15th Century, although it wouldn't be until the 18th Century that mining for coal really took off. By 1900, there were over 12,500 miners producing three million tonnes a year with North Wales being one of the best areas for harvesting coal.
With mechanisation came the realisation that deep coal reserves could now be accessed. Henry Dennis and his son, Henry Dyke Dennis, began a coal mine near Gresford in 1907. It would take four years for the two shafts to be completed. The Dennis and Martin shafts were around 50 yards apart and approximately six yards in diameter. They were 2,263 feet deep1. The Dennis section extended over a mile underground, and mainly worked the Main and Brassey seams. The Brassey seam was virtually gas-free coal for commercial use, while the Main (six to seven feet thick) was very gassy, producing firedamp2 which is explosive. June, 1911 would see the first coal from this new reserve come to the surface.
In December 1911, the Government passed the Coal Mines Act 42 (1). In this Act, it was now law for every new colliery to open two intake airways into each shaft. This would allow more air to flow into the mines. More importantly, it was stated that only one air intake would be allowed for the movement of coal. The Gresford Colliery was exempt as it was in operation before the law came into force. The law did make good sense though, yet the owners refused to take on the additional costs of digging out the extra air intake to supplement the Dennis shaft. As we shall see, this would have fatal ramifications.
By the time 1926 arrived, the coal workers were in a desperate position. They had been defeated in the General Strike and were now incredibly overworked and underpaid. Profits made by the owners of the collieries were decreasing and so cost-cutting measures were introduced. Other collieries within the area were closing down and during the 1920s and 1930s five collieries succumbed to the pressures.
It was thought that when the collieries became mechanised conditions would improve. They didn't. In 1932, 907 coalminers died, and a coalminer was ten times more likely to be killed than someone who worked in a factory. Both noise and dust within the pits was greatly increased. Owners of the pits were against any kind of reforms that were put forward, and the Government was not prepared to cover the cost of enforcing them.
By 1934 the Gresford Colliery employed 2,200 men. There were two main sections to the pit, the Dennis and the South-east. Some parts of the pit were mechanised, yet others were still dug by hand. The men worked in three shifts, with 24 hours split into three. Many would work double shifts to earn extra money; despite the fact that this was illegal, nobody stopped them.
Profitability now became the goal of the Dennis family. They owned a 45% stake in the colliery. The Dennis family put the manager of the pit, William Bonsall, under pressure to increase the productivity of the whole colliery. Not much profit came out of the pit, but even when it did, this still wasn't enough.
Friday, 21 September, 1934
There was to be a football match on the Saturday afternoon between Wrexham and Tranmere Rovers, so 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.
At 2am that Saturday, Fred Davies, who was in his cabin at the bottom of the shaft, heard and felt an explosion. He left the cabin to find out what had occurred, but he couldn't see anything as he was completely enveloped in dust. Davies rang the surface to warn them that an explosion had taken place. He then rang the 'Clutch' where the haulage machine was - this second call wasn't answered due to the explosion.
On the surface, news began to spread that an accident had occurred. Families began to gather at the pithead trying to find out information about what had happened, and to gain news of their loved ones.
Rescue teams went down into the pit to begin the rescue attempt. They would have a long and hard night ahead of them, with nearly 300 men and boys still inside the pit. It would be fruitless. As the rescue team tried to negotiate their way to the men, they were forced back by fumes, fires and rock-falls.
Only six men came out of the pit. John and Albert Samuels were working in a different part of the mine when they heard a thud. They knew something was seriously wrong. Dai Jones, the fireman, decided they would make their way back to the surface and gathered up men as they went. They had only three lamps to provide them with light, and the noxious fumes sapped away at their strength. The men made their way over several roof-falls, up ladders, and through narrow tunnels before they met a man coming the other way, trying to investigate what had happened. They were the last survivors from the pit.
The survivors of the Gresford Disaster were Bert Samuels, Thomas Fisher, David Jones, Jack Samuels, Teddy Andrews and Cyril Challoner.
The Gresford Colliery manager, William Bonsall, knew that the Dennis section was now impossible to access, but there was another area of the colliery where men might still be alive. He sent down a team of rescuers in an attempt to bring them to the surface. They hadn't gone five metres inside before their canary3 died. Despite this, they continued the search. In time, they came to a dead end and were forced to abandon their rescue attempt. Sadly, three of the rescuers were killed by the noxious fumes inside the pit.
More rescue teams were in attendance where the fires were taking place. They had limited fire-fighting equipment but were doing their best. It wasn't until the rescuers heard further explosions from deeper inside the mine that they realised the full dangers facing them. Should they continue, risking their own lives, or call off the rescue? They carried on for as long as they could.
The Sealing of the Pit
At 7pm that night, the decision was made to abandon the rescue and to seal off the pit in an attempt to snuff out the fires raging inside. It turned out to be the right decision to make, as three days after the initial explosion, the Dennis section exploded once more and blew the seal off the mine, killing one man on the surface. By now, the accident had claimed the lives of 266 men and boys, most of whom would stay buried in the pit.
The nation's eyes now turned to Gresford Colliery. Newspapers focused on stories of heroism and bereavement. Speculation about who was at fault, or what caused the disaster, didn't arise.
The nation's press kept Gresford at the forefront of people's minds and during an appeal, which was aided by the press, over £566,500 was raised. This money would be a relief fund for the widows and children of those who died. Even the survivors, and those who were off-duty from the pit at that time, were remembered by the nation. Many groups, schools, businesses, and other organisations sent in money and gifts to help the community. People who had little money gave to those who had lost everything except the roof over their heads.
Following the initial grief, anger became the overriding emotion. What had happened? Who was to blame? What could have been done to stop this from happening? Finally, the wish that the bodies of those trapped inside be brought up was denied. Twice.
At Church House, Regent Street, Wrexham, an inquiry into the explosion at the Gresford Colliery opened on 25 October, 1934.
Sir Henry Walker, the Chief Inspector of Mines, chaired the inquiry and he faced a major problem. As the evidence of what happened was still in the mine, he had no way of accessing it due to the mine having been sealed off. Walker was helped by John Brass and Joseph Jones. John Brass was the appointed person for those who owned the mine and Joseph Jones was the union's nominee. As expected, by the end of the inquiry, none of them were able to agree upon the cause of the accident.
The best barristers in the land were employed. The owners took on Hartley Shawcross (who later became the Chief British prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials) and the Miners' union took on Sir Stafford Cripps. Not only was he a barrister, but he was also a Labour MP. He offered his services pro bono publico4.
The main evidence that was needed was in the Dennis Section. Walker adjourned the inquiry in December, 1934, and had hoped to be able to get the shaft reopened before recommencing the inquiry. Although the pit was reopened in March, 1935, the Dennis section remained closed due to health and safety issues. To the bereaved, this was the owners' admission of guilt. Walker could no longer wait for the Dennis shaft to be reopened, but was reluctant to carry on with the inquiry. The real question the public wanted an answer to was who should bear the responsibility of what happened. In December 1936, Walker had to make his final report, which raised more questions than it answered.
Concentrating on the working conditions within the Dennis shaft, Walker found that bad ventilation was to blame. The presence of gas and the amount of coal dust appeared to be well above what was considered safe. Having said this, Walker still had to work with conflicting reports. The miners said that working practices were dangerous; but the managers and owners of the pit denied these reports, suggesting that the miners were glorifying what was obviously a stupid mistake made by one miner which triggered the explosion.
What did transpire from the inquiry was the fact that the Assistant Surveyor, Idris Cuffin, had been ordered by Bonsall not to take the July and August measurements. After the explosion, Bonsall ordered Cuffin to invent the measurements to cover up the omission.
In January 1937, the inquiry's report was presented to Parliament. Walker was careful in what he wrote: he said it was impossible to know the location and cause of the explosion without entering the Dennis section. However, the finger of blame was never pointed.
In April 1937, at Wrexham Petty Sessions, 42 charges were made against the colliery company, the manager and officials. Most were actually withdrawn or dismissed, but William Bonsall was convicted on eight counts of breaking mining safety law, and he was fined £140 with £350 costs.
The Nationalisation of the Coal Industry
Parliament debated a motion calling for working conditions in coal mines to be improved. Sir Stafford Cripps called for much more: he wanted the industry to be nationalised.
On 1 January, 1947, Sir Stafford Cripps's call was answered: the mines were nationalised. With the country now owning the mines, safety became a priority. Unfortunately, time was running out for Gresford Colliery. Under threat from 1969 onwards, it finally closed in 1973.
When the pit had closed, the relatives of those who died thought that their loved ones would be forgotten. It took nine years for a memorial campaign to reach its goal, and in 1982 the memorial was unveiled. 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.
The memorial can be seen just off the A483. Travelling towards Chester from the Wrexham direction, you go past the turning for Gresford. If you look to your left as you go over the roundabout, you will see the last remaining piece of the mechanism from the colliery, which serves as the memorial.