Remote from the battlefields of the First World War, the citizens of Halmerend were looking forward to their annual party in the Primitive Methodist schoolroom. Every larder in and around the village was to yield ingredience for a real “Beano” in that decorated schoolroom, and Saturday promised to be a day to remember. It was, but for an entirely different reason.
The day came in cold with a promise of more snow. The men of the Minnie pit night shift were safe and sound in their beds. The village itself was astir quite early, for it was Saturday and the weekends shopping had to be done, homes tidied and finishing touches added to the preparations for the old people’s party.
Over a 1,000 feet below ground 247 men were toiling, happy enough, for it was pay-day, a short shift, football in the afternoon, other forms of entertainment in the evening and last but not least the prospect of a long and restful weekend. Alas they were only minutes away from death and misery.
There were two principal pits, the Minnie and Podmore Hall and situated at Miles Green, an older shaft, which though nearly a mile from the colliery was connected to the Minnie and Podmore by a labyrinth of underground workings. Sunk in 1830 its official name was “The Bullhurst Rearers” but it was known as the “Bursted onion” and this old shaft in 1918 was instrumental in saving the lives of 47 men and boys, who otherwise, would have perished.
The Bullhurst seam of coal, after plunging steeply to thousands of feet below ground, rises or “rears” abruptly back to the surface, through a mass of strata.
The name Minnie has a more sentimental association. Before the sinking of the shaft, a Miss Minnie Craig, daughter of the colliery owner, ceremoniously cut the first sod amid a large concourse of people. She was to leave her name as a lasting sad memorial.
Thus began the chequered career of the Minnie. It was whispered that there was a jinx on the pit from the very outset. In 1882 water and quick sand delayed and hampered sinking operations. On a quiet Sunday morning February 7 th 1898, when the pit was not at work, an explosion killed all the pit ponies. Again on a Sunday January 19 th 1915 when 28 men were repairing the Banbury Dip haulage, another explosion killed nine men and seriously injured others. But its blackest day was yet to come.
Some 600 tons of excellent coal reached the Minnie pit bottom. Strong and imposing pitch-pine headgear stood astride the shaft, while an extensive platform surrounding the pithead, came level with the Audley branch of the North Staffordshire Railway.
The village of Halmerend depended largely on the pit for its livelihood. When work was plentiful everyone, including the shopkeepers, was happy and better off and this atmosphere fostered a feeling of togetherness.
In those days a mining village was a close-knit community and miners, whatever their differences, were loyal to each other. Boys followed dads and big brothers into the pit, and this kept up the rhythm of colliery life by three shifts of days, noons and nights. In leisure moments football, cricket, fishing, dog racing and pigeon flying were popular.
Each village had its church and chapel where, when the spirit prompted, the miner and his family sang and prayed. Pubs and clubs were featured, music was well patronised and miners’ areas such as this have produced excellent male-voice choirs and first class bands.
Colliery manager Joseph Smith, the man responsible for the safety and smooth running of his pit, the intermediary between the miner and the owner sat in his office, in the shadow of the Podmore headgears. Like the rest of the pit personnel he too was looking forward to a long and restful weekend, “away from it all.”
It was about 9.45 am and Smith was sipping his morning cup of tea. Suddenly incoherent shouts from surface workers caused him to look through his office window. For a few seconds his gaze was transfixed. “God almighty” he gasped as the awful implications struck him like a thunderbolt. Smoke, soot and dust peppered with sparks were issuing from the Podmore shaft and the fan chimney and coiling upwards into the sky to form a black acrid canopy over the colliery. An explosion had occurred.
Smith immediately contacted the fan attendant, who informed him that the ventilation process had been reversed for some minutes. It was working normally now, but the powerful haulage engine had stalled completely. Simultaneously frantic phone calls from the Minnie pit bottom declared that the haulage lads wanted to ascend the shaft. They had been alarmed by a tremor that had shaken their working places, followed by a cloud of dust, soot and small coal.
Whatever his inner thoughts, the emotions of Joe Smith can only be imagined, 247 precious lives were at stake. Thoughts of these men, their families, wives and children, must have distressed him. Some had several members of their families underground. He immediately ordered his under manager, C.H. Weaver, to descend the shaft to investigate, while he himself remained on the surface to marshal his rescue teams, medical units, to isolate the colliery and to notify the owners.
Weaver found the pit bottom more horrifying than he had anticipated. There was utter confusion. No one seemed to know what had happened. No one gave orders. Everything was coated with thick oily black dust. It clogged nostrils affected breathing and made the eyes smart. An experienced mining official, Weaver knew the signs, a methane gas explosion had taken place. He was about to precede further inbye, when out of the smoke and gloom emerged a grimy Frank Halfpenny, who was carrying a badly injured boy. Both Weaver and Halfpenny agreed that a big explosion had occurred beyond the Banbury dip and fully trained men wearing breathing apparatus could only accomplish that rescue work. Even the recovery of bodies would be dangerous.