They made their way to the coalface, three-and-a-half miles into the mine, a routine they had followed countless times before. This time, however, it was also a journey that many would never make again.
A few hours into their shift, the miners’ workplace – an unpleasant location at the best of times – would be plunged into chaos, a hellish scene which those who survived would never forget.
For those left helpless on the surface, it was a stark reminder of the perils faced daily by men sent to hew coal for the nation’s factories and homes.
The deaths of 80 Derbyshire miners inside Creswell Colliery, 55 years ago this month, was a tragedy beyond imagination. There was scarcely a family in the close-knit community, or the surrounding villages, that had not lost a father, uncle, brother, son, friend, neighbour or workmate.
The mining community on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border was a proud one. There was little employment other than in the surrounding coalfields, and young men joined their fathers and grandfathers down the pits, in harsh and dangerous conditions.
There had been fatal accidents before, at Grassmoor, at Clay Cross, and at others, even at Creswell, but the miners knew the risks of their job and undertook it with neither fuss nor foreboding.
The shift on this Monday night had begun innocuously enough. The previous day shift had noticed that the No 2 trunk belt, used to carry coal to the pithead, was scored with a groove six inches from its edge, and which ran for a distance of 300 yards.
The belt was examined at regular intervals throughout the shift, but no cause could be found and the problem appeared under control. Plans to repair the belt between shifts were cancelled because an overman wanted to keep it running to remove a pile of coal that had been overlooked.
At 11pm, at the start of his shift, Joseph Morris, the No 3 transfer point attendant, also examined the belt.
He found that, for a distance of six to eight yards, the score had cut right through the belt, so much so that his hand could pass through it. The belt was started up regardless.
At 3.10am on Tuesday, September 26, Morris noticed that the belt was now torn through, and had a “trailing end”. He set off in one direction, his colleague, W H Hird, in the other, to walk the length of the belt to find the cause of the damage.
Some 400 yards into his examination, Morris noticed smoke and, further still, saw a fire at the transfer chute. He returned to the station and found that Hird, who had also seen the fire, had telephoned for the power to the belt to be shut off.
The pair tried to put out the fire using the extinguishers available, but the blaze had already taken too much of a hold for them to be effective.
Ironically, the pit’s fire station was cut off, on the other side of the wall of flames.
By now help was on its way. The alarm bells had rung at Ilkeston Mines Rescue Centre, and in the homes of the volunteers, and firefighters had been summoned from nearby villages.
However, water pressure inside the mine was so low that there was little they could do. Supplies of sand and dust were used to suppress the flames, and this appeared to be working, but the steam and smoke produced by the fire, and the efforts to tame it, had shielded from view the ever-expanding inferno.
For the men still working behind the wall of flames, the first indication that anything was amiss came when their power was cut. James Hancock age 42, a coal cutter, ventured out to find out what was wrong, but quickly encountered a sinister black cloud of smoke.
“I scrambled and crawled on my hands and knees and lay for what seemed like five minutes. A man came up to me and said there was a fire at No 2 transfer point. That was about three-quarters of a mile away, but even at that distance it was burning hot. My eyes were streaming.
“The other men in his section, were coming in ones and twos towards the pit bottom. We all took off our shirts and soaked them with water, putting them over our mouths and noses.”
Gradually, some 51 men managed to climb to the surface, using the return airway. Conditions in the mine were truly appalling. The smoke was so dense that the miners’ lamps proved useless and they had to crawl along the, often steep, floor, all the time struggling to breathe in the thick, dusty, and noxious air.
One of the last men to escape was George Vardy age 36, a conveyor erector, who emerged around 4.55am. A few minutes later it was discovered that the inferno was still raging and that many men were still trapped below.
Rescue teams were dispatched, but found only a body, some 500 yards from safety. Attempts were made to resuscitate the man, but it was too late.
Another two bodies were found nearby, with at least 10 more spotted, but the conflagration was in danger of overtaking the entire mine and conditions were so hazardous that any further attempts would have risked the lives of the rescuers.
As Mr Hancock remarked: “No one could have got within sight of them.”
After consulting with the mine’s inspectors, workers’ representatives and management, the agonising decision to seal up the mine was made. It was extremely unlikely, given the nature of the fire, and the carbon monoxide fumes it was creating, that anyone remained alive.
One man had to work on the seal, knowing his own father was being entombed.
Relatives who had, hours earlier, run to the pithead, were informed of the decision, and that the remaining 80 men were dead.
Among the devastated loved ones was Kathleen Barker, who had married her husband, Frederic, only a few weeks earlier. Tragically, Mrs Barker’s first husband had been killed in a coal fall at the same colliery 20 years earlier.
Mrs Tilda London, of Stanfree, returned from her mother’s funeral in Chesterfield to learn that her husband had perished.
Ernest, John and Leslie Dodd, three of seven sons, were all killed. A fourth brother was saved only by being on his annual holiday that week. Robert Brough, a cutter from nearby Clowne, left a widow and seven children between the ages of two months and 11 years.
As with all such tragedies, there were tales of near misses and last-minute changes of heart and mind that meant the difference between life and death.
Mr A J Smith survived simply because he arrived home late from the cinema and decided to take a shift off. Alfred Bryan was less fortunate; he had just returned from a three-week lay-off.
And William Mellish, who had spent much of the preceding six months resting after heart trouble, had returned to the coalface that shift for the first time in two years. Both he and his uncle, of the same name, perished.
Tom Evans age 50, who lived in Clowne, would have celebrated his silver wedding that December. For his daughter, it was the second mining tragedy in less than a year; she had lost her father-in-law the previous November, when he was killed in the Markham Colliery disaster.
The oldest victim was Gordon Fox age 62. He had worked at Creswell since 1919, and previously at Clowne.
The youngest was Colin Hemingray, a 25-year-old conveyor erector who had been married only three weeks and had been due to leave on his honeymoon the following Saturday.
His wife was waiting at home with her new husband’s breakfast, when her mother arrived with news of the tragedy.
By Tuesday evening, conditions had improved enough for recovery workers to re-enter the mine. Around 200 men, working in relays, began the terrible task of removing the bodies of their fallen colleagues.
Some 44 bodies were removed from various points – 20 of them found huddled together, as if overcome by fumes while awaiting rescue. The bodies were taken to the Drill Hall for identification.
Most were barely marked, the poisonous gas suffocating them long before the flames could have reached them. But the fire was still raging further down, and the mine had to be sealed once more, leaving 33 bodies behind.
Coal Board officials and local MPs had gathered at the pithead. To some 2,000 people gathered in the yard that afternoon, Arthur Horner, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, said: “Blood is on coal today, as it has always been. Let those who criticise the miners, and the costs of coal, now realise the price of its getting.”
The local parish priest, the Rev Branson, read a message from King George VI who sent his, and his Queen’s “heartfelt sympathy to the wives and families of those who have lost their lives”.
There were messages, too, from all corners of the country. Philip Noel-Baker, MP for Derby, and Minister of Fuel, had arrived at the pit that afternoon and promised a full enquiry into the circumstances of the disaster.
Late that Tuesday evening, a memorial service was held. “On this tragic occasion, we can do no more than to offer our thoughts to God,” said Rev Branson. A lesson, taken from the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelations, was read and two comforting hymns, O God Our Help in Ages Past and Abide With Me were sung.
So many had died from such small communities that funeral rotas had to be established. Each family had a separate funeral and an individual grave, although many were buried side by side.
A united memorial service was held at the church and, because the church was too small to cope with the large numbers of those who wanted to attend, the service was relayed to the local senior schools.
The mayors of Chesterfield, Worksop and Derby set up appeal funds for the bereaved families and some 4,500 letters of support and comfort were received from all over the country.
The following year, between March and August, the remaining 33 bodies were recovered from the mine and laid to rest.
The official report concluded that the fire had begun when friction from the jammed and damaged belt built up sufficiently to set it alight.
The fire had taken hold quickly, consuming the props and supports around it. As well as recommending several safety improvements, the report also noted that, given the conditions within the mine, the lack of water pressure and the existing common practices, there was nothing more that could have been done to save the lives of the 80 victims.
A memorial garden, with a sundial at the centre, was opened in Creswell churchyard in 1953, on land donated by the Duke of Devonshire.
Creswell Colliery closed in 1991.
This next part is Based On The Official Accident Enquiry By Sir Andrew Bryan, D.Sc., F.R.S.E.
The Accident At Creswell Colliery, Derbyshire
26th September, 1950 - Those Who Died
It was 26th September 1950, the bells were ringing at Ilkeston Mines Rescue Station and in the houses of the rescue men. It was an ungodly hour in the morning as Marion Sheffield leaned out of her bedroom window and watched her dad run down the road to the rescue station. Within two minutes of the bells first beginning to ring the rescue van was leaving the station, then it was gone, all that was left was the incessant ringing of the bell on the landing of each rescue mans house. The wives made their way down to the rescue station and the duty room, to find out where their men had gone and for how long. Marion went with them and picked up a sock, it had fallen out of her dad's pocket as he ran down the road. The men got dressed in the van as it rushed on towards the stricken colliery. Marion remembers one of the wives looking at the duty book and remarking that three lives were in danger. BUT the III strokes in the book were not three they were indeed one hundred and eleven!
The fire started at the No. 2 transfer point about 3.45 a.m. on the 26th September, 1950, when 232 persons were underground, of whom 131 were employed in the South-west District beyond the scene of the fire. Of these, 51 persons escaped by way of the return airway. The remaining 80 persons were caught by the fumes and lost their lives. They were later certified as having died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
During the day shift of the 25th September 1950, it was observed that No. 2 trunk belt was scored. Hindley, a belt-maintenance man, was called to examine it. He found a groove, about 6 inches from the belt edge on the supplies track side, extending along the belt for a distance of nearly 300 yards. Along with others, Hindley examined the conveyor throughout its length but nothing was found that would account for the grooving. The conveyor was started up and Hindley inspected it at intervals during the shift. His last inspection of the belt was made at 8.30 p.m. A full shift of coal had been transported without mishap and arrangements were made for Hindley to stay overtime to repair the belt. These arrangements were cancelled, however, because the overman in charge of the district on the night-shift, finding that a length of coal on No. 65's face had not been filled off, gave instructions for the belt to continue running until the coal was cleared.
When Jos. Morris, the No. 3 transfer point attendant, arrived at his place of work about 11 p.m., he examined the No. 2 belt and estimated that the grooving extended for upwards of 200 yards and that for a length of 6 to 8 yards the belt was cut through. He said he was able to push his hand through the slit. The condition of the belt had clearly worsened since Hindley had made his inspection at 8.30 p.m. Nevertheless, the belt was started up and nothing untoward was observed until 3.10 a.m. when Morris signalled to W. H. Hird, the attendant who was stationed at the telephone, 70 yards on the outbye side of No. 2 transfer point, to stop the No. 2 belt Morris then told Hird via the pit-bottom exchange that the belt was torn and had a "trailing end." He arranged to travel outbye while Hird travelled inbye so that they could find where the damage to the belt had started. Morris set off , about 400 yards from No. 2 transfer point he encountered smoke, and when still 150 yards away he saw fire at the transfer chute and flames between the chute and the side wall of the roadway.
Hird travelled inbye no further than the 70 yards to the No. 2 transfer point where he saw the transfer hopper full of torn belting, looking, as he said, as "if three or four men each side had been laying it out." He returned to his telephone, informed the man in charge of the pit-bottom telephone exchange what had occurred and asked to be put in contact with Godfrey, the night overman in charge of the South-West District. During this time the No. 1 belt continued to run although Hird stated that he had signalled for it to stop. A few minutes later Hird saw fire in the chute at the transfer point and again telephoned to the pit bottom to ask for the electric power to be cut off and for help to be summoned. He had just completed this telephone call when Jos. Morris arrived and asked him if he knew the transfer point was on fire. Hird said he did and looked at his watch. It was then 3.45 a.m. From the time No. 2 belt was stopped until the fire was discovered, Morris had travelled nearly l,000 yards, including 350 yards up a drift rising at 1 in 9, examining the conveyor structure and belt on the way. Morris, asked Hird about the portable fire extinguishers. There were two at the nearby 59's junction. He applied the first with little effect, and the second failed to function.The fire station was on the inbye side of the No. 2 transfer point and soon became inaccessible because of the fire. When the station was first established it conformed to the normal and good practice at this colliery, in that it was sited on the intake side of the vulnerable point, because it then served the old 59's junction, which was 260 yards inbye from it. Even if the fire station had been on the outbye side of the transfer point, it is doubtful whether, in the circumstances of this fire, it would have altered the course of events. Before Hird and Morris discovered the actual fire, the strips of torn belting within the metal enclosure of the chute were so well alight and so relatively inaccessible, that portable fire extinguishers or buckets of sand or water were of little use. The burning of the torn belting developed so rapidly and fiercely that nothing short of a copious water supply at adequate pressure would have met the situation.
Immediately on receipt of Hird's telephone message about the fire, F. Kirk, the pit-bottom telephone-exchange attendant, sent telephone warnings of the fire into the South-west District and called for fire-fighting teams from other parts of the mine. The manager and undermanager were also informed. It was now 4 a.m. Messages were sent for the Central Rescue Brigades at Chesterfield, senior local officials of the National Coal Board, H.M. Inspectors of Mines and officials of the Mine-Workers' Unions. When the undermanager got to the pit, he spoke to the manager at his home by telephone, and then went underground. Having received assurances that the inbye workmen had been warned of the fire and were on their way outbye, he went straight to the scene of the fire. There he found that some members of the pit fire-fighting teams, led by I. Rodda, overman in charge of the North-West District, had been in action since shortly after 4 a.m. They had travelled in the "Paddy" in the return airway, taking with them a supply of fire-hoses and nozzles. The fire fighters at once coupled up their hoses to the water main but got little more than a trickle of water, which was quite ineffective. The flow of water was so small that their efforts with the hoses were described at the Inquiry as "just like standing in a garden watering flowers." Repeated telephone messages for an increased supply brought no improvement. It was now about 5.15 a.m.
The water-supply system had been provided at considerable cost in time and materials and was considerably above the standard found in many collieries of the day. Its failure at a critical time, indeed the only time it had ever been required to deal with an underground fire, proved disastrous and costly. The lack of an adequate water supply, under pressure, was due to a set of most unfortunate coincidences. The underground fire mains were supplied constantly with water by a 1-inch pipe from the No. 2 upcast shaft, but this quantity was only sufficient to maintain the dust-suppression sprays. For the much larger quantity of water needed for fire fighting, reliance was placed on the 5 inches diameter rising main in No. 1 shaft. During the night shift, this main was continuously fed with water from the Top Hard pump but during the other two shifts the water supply was fed into the main from surface tanks through suitable valves. Unfortunately, for the first time for many years, the Top Hard pump failed to start at the commencement of the night shift and the fitters who examined it considered that it could not be repaired during the shift. Although the pump-man informed Godfrey, the night overman, of the breakdown, neither the pump-man nor the informed any surface official and so nothing was done to adjust the surface valves to ensure that the main was fed with water from the surface tanks.
In the meantime supplies of portable fire extinguishers sand and stone dust were collected and sent to the scene of the fire and used very effectively. So much so, indeed, that the impression was gained that the main fire had been got under control, with the result that a message was sent to the surface that the fire was nearly extinguished. Unhappily, this was not the case. The steam and smoke in the roadway had reduced the visibility to practically nil and had masked the spread of the fire along the roadway, an extension which, no doubt, had been accelerated when the burning No. 2 belt, still under tension, broke and the burning end sprang inbye.
At 5.20 a.m. the rescue brigade men from Chesterfield Rescue Station arrived at the fire, but because of the lack of an adequate supply of water under pressure, they were unable to do any really effective fire-fighting work. While the other fire-fighters continued their efforts with the portable fire-extinguishers and the little water still available, the rescue brigade men donned their liquid-air apparatus and tried to get past and ahead of the fire in an attempt to prevent it from spreading further inbye, but the heat was too intense and the attempt failed. By the time a reasonable supply of water was available, the fire in the chute at No. 2 transfer point had burned itself out, and the fire had spread a long way inbye. Water was still necessary, however, to cool down the hot material and smouldering wood. Another attempt was made to reach the advancing fire by working forward along the roadway, but because of damage to roof supports, the effect of heat and water on the strata and the deterioration of roof and sides, conditions became too dangerous to allow the attempts to continue.
While all this had been going on, several men from the inbye workings in the South-west District had come out safely by way of the main-return airway. Then at about 5 a.m., another inbye workman, J. W. Turner, who had been working on 65's face, came out of 59's loader gate. He had travelled by the main return to 59's right-hand return, over the overcast on the main intake and then along 59's right side face. On his way he had opened the doors at the overcast and saw the fire raging underneath it. He was in a distressed condition and reported that there were more men behind him. The fire had thus travelled at least 125 yards inbye in about 1.1/4 hours. It was now realised that the inbye men were not getting out as expected and rescue teams were at once sent in to explore the main return. They found one body about 500 yards inbye from 59's left return gate and brought it to the fresh-air base. Artificial respiration was tried but there was no response. Eventually, the rescue teams brought out two other bodies and reported that they had seen ten more. By this time the smoke in the main return at 59's left side return gate was extremely dense and had a very bad effect upon the eyes of the rescue men. Moreover, the effect of the smoke-laden air on the canary carried by the rescue teams showed that the atmosphere was so deadly that it was impossible to conceive of anyone being alive in the inbye workings. It was decided that, except for an exploration of the main return towards the shaft, rescue work should be stopped for the time being. The return airway was explored towards the shaft bottom but the rescue team reached the stable slit without finding anyone.
A conference of representatives of the National Coal Board, the workmen's Unions and the Inspectorate was now called to discuss the position and decide future action. It came to the unanimous conclusion that, since no one could be alive on the inbye side of the fire and since the dangerous condition of the roadway precluded fire-fighters from reaching the fire-front to prevent the fire from spreading further inbye, the only possible way of extinguishing the fire and of avoiding the risk of a firedamp explosion, was to seal off the district. The sites of the seals were agreed and arrangements made for improving the haulage facilities to transport the necessary building materials inbye. An examination of the main return at the stable slit indicated that the smoke was now much less dense than formerly and that the effect on the eyes was less severe. It seemed as if the intensity of the fire had somehow become suddenly reduced. A further examination was then made of the scene of the fire and of the main return at 59's left gate. The outbye end of the fire area had considerably cooled down but because of the dangerous condition of the roadway the advance of the fire inbye along the belt road could not be ascertained. A second examination revealed that the smoke in the return was definitely less dense.
More bodies were found just beyond the point where the ten bodies were lying, and, altogether, 47 were recovered. Rescue teams were sent to explore the inbye slits connecting intake and return. In each case the rescue men reported that they were unable to travel these slits because of heat, smoke, and deterioration of roof conditions. This information not only made it inadvisable to send rescue parties further away from the fresh-air base but also emphasised the need to build the seals as quickly as possible. By this time the outbye haulage arrangements were functioning properly, and sand bags and supplies were ready to come inbye in quantity. 'Shef' told his wife about the miner helping with the sealing off, knowing that he was sealing his father in.
In addition to recovering the 47 bodies, the rescue men located 27 others, leaving six more to be found. These remaining bodies were not recovered until the l0th August, 1951, almost a year after the fire.
Sir Andrew Bryan concluded, in his report, by paying tribute to the heroism of many, known and unknown, among the workmen, officials, management and rescue teams during the many distressing hours immediately following the fire. In all these operations, as in the earlier work, the rescue teams drawn from a wide area, including Ilkeston, did a fine job, working with diligence and courage, and performing hard and hazardous tasks without any untoward incident. It was also noted that some teams travelled as much as l,500 yards away from the fresh-air base, thus making a total journey of 3,000 yards.
....................May you all rest in peace....................