TODAY marks the 70th anniversary of the Gresford mining disaster, where 265 men were killed. TV producer Martin Smith relives that dreadful day 'THE whole of today's news was overshadowed and darkened by a terrible mine disaster in North Wales.
There was an explosion followed by fire at Gresford Colliery, near Wrexham early this morning." These were the words beamed by a BBC announcer to millions of radio listeners 70 years ago. The news on that Saturday, September 22 nd 1934, plunged much of the country into deep unease. Coal mining was then the basic industry of Britain and the mines alone employed more than 750,000 people. Newspapers rushed out special editions as people waited for information about the fate of over 100 miners trapped in the Dennis section of Gresford pit. The figure was a guess because regulations demanding a tally must be kept of all miners going in or out of a pit had been ignored by the pit managers. On the night of the explosion, 14-year-old Albert Rowlands cycled with his father, a coal cutter, to start the evening shift. Albert cycled on ahead. His surface job was to hand out safety lamps to miners before they went underground. It was the last time he saw his father. Shortly after 2am, the teenager was having a can of tea and sandwiches. "The telephone rang and the foreman turned to me and said: 'Get the ambulance man', so I got my bike and set off," he recalls:- "The ambulance man for the colliery lived the other side of Wrexham. He shoved up the window and asked what I wanted. All I could say was: 'You're wanted at the pit'."
Of the men working in the Dennis section of the shift that night only six escaped, and they were left to make their own way home. Face worker Cyril Challoner was one of them. His wife, Irene, clearly remembers that night. "At 5am my husband came home on his bike to New Broughton. He rang the bell and I thought, 'Oh, he's home an hour early'. He said: 'There's been a terrible disaster at the pit.' Then he passed out - just collapsed."
Albert Rowlands recalls how the rescue team from Llay Main Colliery arrived as dawn broke. "They had all the gear on - fireproof clothing and masks - and down they went. Then, they brought stretchers up, men dead on stretchers with blankets covering them." There were volunteer rescuers at the mine too, desperately trying to damp down the fire.
Harold Bent was a 21-year-old miner at the time. "There were sheets of flame all the way across. You couldn't get beyond it. You couldn't dowse it and that's where the men were stuck, trapped down there," he says.
In Wrexham, a football match against Tranmere was due to kick off that afternoon. Some of the men had gone in to work on Friday night so they could watch the following day. Blankets were taken around the pitch to collect money for the families of the trapped men before the game, which ended in a 2-2 draw. And despite initially optimistic radio reports on the success of the rescue operation, as the day progressed, so news from the pit worsened. Throughout Saturday night and into Sunday, crowds of relatives and fellow miners were at the pit waiting for news.
Emily MacGregor, whose father, a hewer at Gresford, was off sick the night of the explosion, remembers the atmosphere the next morning when she accompanied her father to the pit. "I remember going through the gates and seeing crowds of people standing on the pit bank," she says. "But most of all I remember the crying and wailing."
Late on Sunday afternoon a government bulletin announced: "The Mines Department has been notified by the chief inspector of mines at Gresford Colliery that, in view of the grave and increasing risks of continuing the rescue operations, and being satisfied that none of the persons now left in the mine can still be alive, His Majesty's Inspector Of Mines, the representatives of the colliery management and representatives of the workmen employed, have decided to abandon the operations and all persons engaged in them have been withdrawn from the mine."
And according to Stanley Williamson's book, "Gresford: The Anatomy Of A Disaster", the official bulletin had a swift impact on the site - crowds of people melted away, fans and blowers slowed down to silence and an eerie peace descended on the colliery.
A public inquiry took two years to investigate the disaster. The report's appendix lists names, ages and occupations of all 265 men who perished - the youngest was 15-year-old Charles Harrison and the oldest was 68-year-old Edward Wynn. Like the majority of victims, they were entombed in the workings of Gresford Colliery, where they remain, remembered now on a memorial and in the lines of a folk song:-
"Down there in the dark they are lying.
They died for nine shillings a day.
They have worked out their shift and now they must lie.
In the darkness until judgement day."
Nearly three years later, the colliery employers were found guilty of breaching a total of eight coal mine safety regulations. Their punishment? They were fined ?140.