100 YEARS ON
This Article was taken from a special edition of the Dewsbury Reporter
and was researched and written by Assistant Editor Margaret Watson, with the aid of the people of Dewsbury.
IT IS difficult, in this modern age, to fully grasp the depth of suffering of a tight knit community, the like of which was seen in the days following the 4th of July, 1893. We can thank God indeed that our lives are now infinitely safer at our places of work; in fact the tragedy at Combs Pit was itself responsible for re-thinking the practice of having naked-lights in any mine — even a so-called 'wet' pit like Thornhill. In retrospect it is hard to believe that even then the practice was allowed to prevail. What cannot be questioned is the doughty courage of the men who lost their lives and that of their comrades who tried, largely in vain, to rescue them. The men who have worked underground throughout the history of mining were then, and are now, a breed apart. Tragedy and catastrophe is still a living shadow and this tribute to those men is as timely, even on the brink of the 21st century, as it ever was.
Reading the emotive and courageous accounts within these pages elicits a sense of true humility at the ability of the poorest of people to cope with grief and utter desolation. The wealth of community spirit which kept body and soul together at that time is rarely seen today. But however many facets of our lives have changed in the intervening century, one thing remains absolute — our respect for the human spirit so brightly reflected, even at such a distance. At the time of the disaster it was estimated that £21,000 would be needed to care for the needs of the bereaved — a huge amount at the time. In the event a sum of £34,546-3s-1d was realised.
A large number of the men and lads who perished lay in unmarked graves, and to this day (July 1993) there was no monument bearing all of their names. It was right and fitting that we should indelibly mark the memory of those men, which is why ‘The Reporter’ was leading a campaign to erect a monument to their eternal memory. Part of the purchase price of each copy of the special edition, printed July 1993, went towards their Combs Colliery Appeal.
The Reporter Ltd -17 Wellington Road, Dewsbury, WF13 1IIQ, with offices in Dewsbury, Batley and Morley.
A Catastrophic Colliery Disaster At Thornhill; 139 Men And Boys Perish
Explosion Occurs Underground As Men Sitting Down To Dinner At Combs Pit
Twenty Thousand People Anxiously Gather On Village Hillside
This was the sombre scene awaiting those who visited Thornhill on Tuesday following the dreadful calamity.
Thousands of people from all over the area flocked there.
By evening, the melancholy crowds numbered nearly twenty thousand.
One of the worst colliery disasters in history, and certainly the most disastrous this district has known, occurred at the Combs Colliery, Thornhill, on Tuesday, claiming the lives of 139 men and boys, a number of whom were only 12 years old.
This terrible calamity has left nigh on every house in the village bereft of a loved one and, needless to say, many of the women-folk are, now widows and their children orphans. Most families have been robbed of their sole breadwinner and the grief of this proud community is inconsolable, especially for those who have suffered the double loss of both husband and son, of which there are several.
The disaster happened shortly before noon, just as the winders at the pit top had stopped the engines to take their dinner. Everything was as usual, and not the slightest suspicion that anything was wrong. A muffled sound was heard, but the men believed it to be thunder and took little notice, for there has been terrific storms of late in Dewsbury and much electric disturbance in the atmosphere.
A second report followed, this time without doubt from underground and it flashed upon them that a terrible catastrophe had taken place and the lives of their fellow-workmen were in jeopardy, if not already sacrificed. They rushed to the drawing shaft and saw flames and smoke issuing forth and knew at once an explosion had occurred. The next moment they were running for Mr Walter Scott, the certified manager of the colliery, a gentleman of great ability and experience, who resided nearby, and who had just sat down for his dinner when they arrived.
Smoke Pouring From Shaft
The engine man, Mr Blackburn, who had just reached home, was also fetched, and when the two men arrived, more and more smoke was pouring from the shaft, telling an awful story of what had happened and what was still going on below. The hurried fetching of the manager, the engine man, and others from their dwellings in the Combs, had given rise to alarm, and soon the news was spread from house to house that men were trapped underground.
Women, in agonies of alarm, with their children running behind them, raced to the pit and crowds of people from all over the hill were soon gathered together, Cries of woe were heard on every hand and the men standing at the pit head, who were themselves heartbroken at the calamity, witnessed many bitter, scenes of anguish that day.
The tragic news spread further and women from Thornhill Edge, Lees Moore and Middles town, with deep misery prevailing in their hearts, came rushing from their homes, for had not each one a father son, husband or brother down there. The crowds soon became enormous as people flocked down the pathway or road, gathering about the head of the two shafts, lining the high banks that overlook the premises.
The distressed relatives and friends of the entombed, gazed at the deep pit which had engulfed their loved ones, but none now cried aloud. Few uttered wailings of despair but bore themselves stoically, like folk of the good, true English stock, meeting red ruin and the loss of those they loved with the highest fortitude, and placing their trust in God.
Rescuers Descend Blazing Pit
Without delay the work of exploring the mine, which was still on fire, was attempted and Mr Scott’s call for men was responded to with the utmost promptitude. Mr Scott and three others bravely entered the cage and were lowered, but were quickly drawn up again, having almost immediately encountered the fumes of the deathly after-damp.
News of the catastrophe was still spreading in the district and in just over an hour it had reached Dewsbury from Thornhill Lees, and got to Ravensthorpe, and on to Batley, and Heckmondwike, and Soothill, Ossett and Horbury and over to Emley, Flockton, Grange ,Moor and beyond.
Cabs, waggonettes, and other vehicles came from Dewsbury and made their way to the common destination. By four o'clock in the afternoon full fifteen thousand people had gathered in and about the colliery which rose to twenty thousand as the day wore on.
A considerable number of women weavers employed at Dewsbury mills, whose homes were in Thornhill, and who had fathers and brothers and near relations working in the pit were alarmed when they heard of what had taken place, and quitting their looms proceeded to Thornhill, only to find that matters were worse than they had imagined. One young woman, who lost her mother recently, is now, it is feared, also bereft of her father and two brothers and she is the only one left of the household. Her load of trouble is almost greater than she can bear.
First Body Found
A second attempt to descend the pit was quickly made and a lower depth was reached, but again the party were obliged to give the order to pull up and as they came to the top they were overtaken by an immense cloud of smoke. The lookers on now being numerous, shrieked with terror, and the brave men, baffled in their attempts to descend this shaft, made hasty arrangements for descending by the pumping shaft.
They succeeded in reaching the pit only to discover that an explosion had taken place and that a fire was raging not far off, and almost immediately came upon the first dreadful signs of a fatal disaster, the lifeless bodies of four miners, which were at once brought to the surface and out into the sight of the vast crowd.
The first was blacksmith James Scargill (46), a married man from Batley Carr, the sight of whom saddened and awed the people looking on, but it was with great relief that they learnt there were no signs of burning on his body. The four bodies were taken into the workshop and laid side by side where they were tended by rough but loving and sympathetic hands. The other men were: Roland Blakely Garfitt, (21), hurrier, single, of Thornhill Edge, Samuel Croft (26), hanger-on, of Crossgates, Thornhill and Walter Field, (16), pony driver, of Wells Road, Thornhill.
Another Body Found
It was not until eight o’ clock at night that another body was discovered, that of Mr Amos Hawksworth; under-manager, which was also raised and laid out. Later the Church authorities arranged for the Parochial Hall to be set apart for the reception, the laying out, and the identification of the dead. At this time the rescue parties held no hope that there was anyone alive in the pit. The hope that some of the miners might find their way out of the pit at the Ings Colliery end was destroyed when news was brought that fire-dump was issuing from the opening there.
Several times the rescuers descended the pit but found it so full of suffocating fumes that they could proceed but a few yards. It was eventually decided to flood the blocking seam, from whence smoke had been seen issuing, in order that the exploring party might proceed with their work in the Wheatley seam without the possibility of their escape being cut off. But after several more attempts to get to the entombed miners, the rescue party announced at ten o'clock that night that exploring operations should be abandoned until the following morning, and therefore, those who were not officials should at once leave the premises.
The police informed the public outside of the decision come to, and quietly and orderly the vast concourse of people dispersed to their widely separated homes. Poor women who had been standing near the pit for hours during the afternoon returned home, while some could not be induced to leave the place. All hope of saving any alive from the pit now seemed to be given up.
Pit Is Owned By Mr Ingham Of Mirfield
Fiery Gas Has Not Been A Problem Previously
The colliery premises at Combs Hill are owned by Mr Edward Theodore Ingham, of Blake Hall, Mirfield, a gentleman of large experience as a mine owner, and who, it is well known, has taken and still takes a great pride in having everything connected with that and his other colliery, Ings, in Thornhill Lees, on the best possible principle. This one was commenced and worked by his father zsome thirty five years ago and was carried on by his brother, the late Captain Ingham, of Overthorpe, Thornhill, whom Mr E T Ingham succeeded.
The colliery premises occupy the top of and the north side of the rounded hill, in close proximity to the winding road to Dewsbury and to the village that clusters near. It is a familiar point in the landscape, and made the more prominent by the regularly running puffs of steam emitted by the engines as winding or pumping goes on. It has always been regarded in the public mind, and we believe by miners generally, as a very safe one.
Accidents have occurred there, fatal accidents, which though sad and shocking in themselves, were of the kind that are inseparable from the conduction of a great concern like this, and have never approached what we call catastrophes in their magnitude. To go down Combs pit has been the desire of many members of societies because of its reputation for safety, as well as for the interesting features of the mine itself.
The mine is worked by two shafts, about 40 yards apart, one is used for drawing out coal and the other for the raising of water. The flow of air for clearing the workings of gas, passes through tunnels communicated with nearby Ings Colliery. The foul current of gasses is passed into the atmosphere outside by means of a huge centrifugal fan worked by powerful engines which propel it at an immense velocity. The workings of the Combs Colliery, extending as they do under Thornhill, are all cleared by this system of ventilation, which has hitherto been found most effective.
The seam at present being operated on in the Combs Colliery is locally known as the Wheatley bed, because it extends under the southern part of Mirfield, and has been worked by the Wheatley family. It is affectionately known by the miners who work it as "T'owd Lad". The seam, which is 140 yards from the surface, varies from 2ft 6 ins to 3 feet in depth, and we are told yields no considerable quantity of gas; at least, not more than may be looked for in any mine of bituminous coal. Thirty yards below Wheatley bed is another bed known as the Old Hards, which is no longer in use. When its use ceased, a wooden landing chamber was built to cut off access to it and it was sealed off.
A searching investigation into the cause of the awful calamity at Combs Colliery has yet to take, place, and it would be wrong to hazard an opinion on the subject. We, however, may state that a theory is held that fiery gas, which had built up here, made its way through the seams of this wooden landing chamber, which sealed off the lower bed, and so caused the catastrophe which has desolated hundreds of homes in and about Thornhill.
Before work commenced in the colliery on that fatal day, the mine had been examined by the ‘triers’ a custom rigidly carried out and reported all right. At six o'clock, on Tuesday morning, 4th of July, I893, the men and boys began to descend, and operations began. Precisely six hours later, the first explosion occurred.
Lord Savile Makes Contribution
Lord Savile, a large landowner in the neighbourhood, has given £250 and other gentlemen are, in proportion, equally munificent.
We are glad to note the general approval by the press of surrounding towns of the Mayor of Dewsbury in applying to the relief of the sufferers the fund raised for the celebration of the Royal wedding.
No more suitable application of the fund could well be devised and we doubt not that the Prince and Princess would themselves be the first to approve the diversion of the money.