Day of disaster when the earth stood still

Church friends: Martyn Johnson, Nancy Mellor, Glenice Smith, Mike Smith, John Kendall and the Rev David Hildred
Church friends: Martyn Johnson, Nancy Mellor, Glenice Smith, Mike Smith, John Kendall and the Rev David Hildred
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A mining disaster that took place 125 years ago is still bringing the people of Darfield together.

Star reporter Rachael Clegg looks ahead to this week’s unveiling of the restored Houghton Main Disaster monument...

Restored monument to the Houghton Main Disasater,at Darfield Cemetery.

Restored monument to the Houghton Main Disasater,at Darfield Cemetery.

IN THE South Yorkshire village of Darfield near Barnsley, the date December 30 has a chilling resonance. It was on this day in 1886 that the small mining community was struck by tragedy.

Here, on a cold winter’s night at around 7.50pm, 10 miners were killed when a cage lift bringing them up at Houghton Main colliery overwound, plummeted several hundred yards at a speed of more than 200mph and the men in it were crushed to death.

The 10 workers belonged to just three families.

Known as the ‘Ten Men’ disaster, the catastrophic event was immediately immortalised with a huge granite memorial in Darfield Churchyard a year later. Today, more than a century on, Darfield residents still remember the terror and bravery of those 10 men.

Looking back: Martyn Johnson with the Rev David Hildred.    Picture: Steve Ellis

Looking back: Martyn Johnson with the Rev David Hildred. Picture: Steve Ellis

And local residents and The Friends of Darfield Churchyard have now raised more than £4,000 to restore the memorial and re-set the lettering which lists the names of the men whose lives were lost.

The group, with supporters including Darfield resident and national poet Ian McMillan, Darfield-bred author Martyn Johnson, Black Diamonds author Catherine Bailey and mining historian and writer Brian Elliot, will unveil the restored memorial this Sunday.

It’s more than just a ceremony. Sunday’s unveiling marks a historical event which is central to Darfield’s heritage as a mining village, as Martyn Johnson, 69, who lives in Wentworth, explained.

“Ninety per cent of people in the area were employed by the Coal Board and people are very much still moved by the story,” he said. “It’s part of our psyche in Darfield - there were no other jobs for the men in the village apart from the pit.

Pleasant spot: Remembering the Houghton Main disaster, at Darfield Cemetery

Pleasant spot: Remembering the Houghton Main disaster, at Darfield Cemetery

“My father worked at Houghton Main and I feel proud - as so many other people do - that he worked so hard so that I wouldn’t have to work down there. It’s that pride factor that made us all want to raise money to restore the monument. We’re carrying on the history.”

As with so many other South Yorkshire villages, such as Dinnington and Edlington, Darfield’s entire community was centred around the pit.

“It was fantastic being brought up in a mining community – I had hundreds of mums and dads,” says Martyn. “If ever I wanted a glass of water I could knock on any number of doors. Children really respected the adults because everybody knew who everybody was. When the mine properly shut down it was a huge loss to the community.”

But the warmth of mining communities such as Darfield’s was - in part - borne out of necessity. Fathers, sons, brothers and husbands were working in extremely dangerous conditions. Mining disasters were not uncommon, so the community above ground pulled together and supported one another.

Mining historian Brian Elliot, now in his mid-60s, said: “My dad worked at Wharncliffe Woodmoor pit, where there was a huge disaster, killing 58 men in 1936.

“My dad wasn’t working that shift but I can still remember how anxious my mother was when she was giving my dad a kiss and his lunchbox before he went to work.

“Even as a child I picked up on her anxiety but then the disaster at that pit happened only 20 years earlier. I think that feeling of anxiety was pretty typical - all miners had some kind of experience at the pit and it was because of the danger of the occupation of a miner that people really supported each other.

“In the pit there was a sort of battlefield camaraderie. Men, even if they didn’t really like each other as people, looked out for each other and tried to save each other. That’s why when the pits closed in the 1980s and ’90s it was such a blow to the communities. Those supportive relationships gradually eroded.”

The details of what caused the Houghton Main disaster are not known, but we do know it was caused by the cage being overwound and thus dropping to the bottom of the shaft.

“It was a strange situation,” said Brian. “The disaster happened at about 7.50pm, which was the afternoon shift for the miners. There were 10 men in the cage, which was being drawn up to the top.

“It was a three-deck cage operated by a very trustworthy man called Alan Beresford. He was about 150 yards from the top when he heard a loud noise from above. He was hit on the head by some wood and the cage failed to hold, it overwound and hurtled down about 500 yards at a speed of 200mph.

“It took 10 to 12 seconds to reach the bottom and when it did the men were killed instantly. The bottom smashed through an oak beam and the wood and iron structure of the cage was described as looking like ‘matchwood’. The men didn’t stand a chance. The 12 seconds it took to get to the bottom must have been absolutely terrifying.”

The Houghton Main disaster may have happened in 1886, but the support for the restoration project has been staggering.

“The money has been raised from people like my mother with 20p pieces, to locals coming into the churchyard and making donations after seeing what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’ve also had donations from people as far afield as Canada and North America, whose ancestors probably worked at the pit.”

The monument will be restored with Yorkshire stone, which was used on the original monument, and the edifice will be in granite.

This Sunday’s ceremony will take place at Darfield Churchyard at 11am and wll include a service at All Saints Church, Darfield. There will be readings and talks from Friends of Darfield Churchyard chairman John Kendall, Ian McMillan, Martyn Johnson, Brian Elliot, Catherine Bailey and a performance by the Houghton Main Voice Choir. The director of The National Coal Mining Museum, Dr Margaret Faull, will also attend.

Colliery history

Houghton Main pit was sunk between 1871 and 1873.

It was commissioned by the Houghton Main Colliery Company, who wanted to create a mine that could extract coal from the ‘Barnsley Main’ seam - an abundant supply of coal that was efficient and economical to mine. It is for this reason the pit takes the name ‘Houghton Main’.

The mine was between Houghton and Darfield, which is why so many Darfield residents worked there.

Despite the catastrophe of 1886 Houghton Main suffered far fewer fatalities than other pits, with a record of ‘only’ five to seven deaths a year.

The Houghton Main pit also had a coking plant, where coal was processed to create chemicals.

It wasn’t until 1931 that Houghton Main built baths for the workers. Until then workers had to wash at home, though few - if any - had their own tubs.

The pit closed in 1992.