Pit village’s blackest day

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The 22-year-old was still eating breakfast but his landlady later recalled he pushed it to one side, picked up his pick and helmet and rushed from the house.

It was July 9 1912 - a beautiful blue sky day - and he was one of the first men to arrive at Cadeby Main Colliery, Doncaster, where an explosion had ripped through the night shift. It was unknown then but 35 men had perished.

Crowds wait for news after the Cadeby Pit Disaster

Crowds wait for news after the Cadeby Pit Disaster

Emrys was not part of an official rescue team but he insisted on helping anyway. The men down there were his friends.

It was the last decision he made. Soon after the group descended a second blast tore through the mine.

Fifty-three rescuers - including Emrys Evans, a kid from Wales who had moved to South Yorkshire months earlier to learn his trade - died instantly.

Such is just one of the many stories of heroism and tragedy from what would end up being the ninth worst British mining disaster of the 20th century.

And it is exactly such tales which will form part of a new book and exhibition being compiled to mark next year’s centenary of the disaster.

Jim Beachill, secretary of the newly formed Cadeby Pit Disaster Commemoration Group, is determined the catastrophe is not forgotten, and the group is currently undertaking the mammoth task of researching the lives of everyone who died for a series of mini-biographies.

No easy project considering 91 people perished in total.

They included the 35 who died in the first explosion, the 53 rescuers, two men who later passed away from their injuries and one rescuer, Frank Wood, who, after two days carrying the dead from the pit, walked away and killed himself.

Among the victims were no lesser figures than the district chief inspector of mines William Pickering, fellow inspector John Hewitt and pit manager Charles Bury.

More than 60 women were left widows, more than 130 children fatherless.

“It’s imperative the sacrifices made aren’t forgotten,” says Jim. “Next year will be 100 years since this happened and it will be the last time for a generation there is a good reason to commemorate what was the blackest day in the village’s history.”

That blackness came after one of the village’s most proud days.

Just two days previously King George V and Queen Mary had visited nearby Conisbrough Castle and praised the work of the pit.

Because of celebrations marking the occasion there were only 111 men working on that Tuesday morning when a gob fire which had been burning undetected for years caused the eruption. Normally there would have been 500 miners down there.

The fact the death toll could have been so much higher, though, provided little comfort then - or now.

“The incident is scarred on the collective memory but increasingly you might find people don’t really know what happened,” says Jim, an accountant of March Vale Rise, Conisbrough. “The pits have shut now but that should be no reason to forget that these men gave their lives doing such an important job. Many of their descendents still live in the area and I think a year of events will be popular.”

Those events will include a book charting the disaster and the lives of all the victims, and an exhibition at a local library. Of the 91 victims, the group currently has biographies for about 60 of them, and pictures of 30.

“In an ideal world we’d get full life stories and photos of them all,” says Jim.

It is also hoped a permanent exhibition can be set up at The National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, an open air service will be held at Denaby Cricket Ground and a series of brass and pop concerts will take place throughout summer 2012.

Now the group are asking for volunteers to help plan the events and partake in the research. Anyone interested is invited to a meeting at Denaby and Cadeby Miners Welfare Social Club, in Tickhill Square, Denaby, on Tuesday, 7pm. Or email jamesbeachill@hotmail.com

Personal accounts from witnesses to the tragedy

Horace Dokinfield, miner

“I saw huge falls of rubbish and dead bodies lying all around. Some of the bodies were shattered all to pieces. “You could hardly tell they had been men.

“For nine hours I have been bringing out the dead and I have had enough. I can stand no more.”

Percy Murgatroyd, miner

“All at once there was a trembling of the air.

“We had no time to seek a place of safety. The explosion was upon us.

“I am rather misty as to details but I can remember a fearful roar, and then clouds of dust and smoke were surging all around.”

Tommy Stokes, local boxer and ambulance man

“My heart’s been bleeding all day long.

“One man I helped to carry out suddenly began to moan, ‘Give me a drink’. I gave him a drink but he died before he could swallow.”